MONTREAL -- The Canadian chicken industry, needing to scale back dramatically in a changing economy, has had to destroy millions of incubating eggs and even reportedly some chicks, trying to prevent even more waste later on.

Some types of food supplies are easier to adjust than others, and chicken isn’t one of the easier ones, industry experts said.

Even Canadian consumers may have noticed some changes in the chicken for sale at grocery stories—and have even adjusted their cooking—as the whole industry adapts on the fly.

“Our farmers aren't going to be raising as many birds,” said Lisa Bishop-Spencer of Chicken Farmers of Canada.

Normally, no one can perfectly predict demand, but “the farmers will always try to grow [the chickens] to the end of the cycle and then determine what we need to do next,” she said. 

But the market changes during the COVID pandemic have been so extreme that chicken producers needed to face facts and realize that they’d soon be in a situation where they didn’t have enough buyers or maybe enough processing plant capacity, and the chickens—a few weeks older by then—would be slaughtered and then sent straight to the rendering plant.

The food service industry, including restaurants and other sources of prepared food, accounts for 40 per cent of chicken production in Canada, said Bishop-Spencer. That nearly disappeared overnight when the COVID pandemic hit. 

In April, the board of directors for Chicken Farmers of Canada met twice to discuss supply management over the upcoming months. They decided to reduce the national supply by 12 per cent from May through August.

That meant reducing orders at hatcheries, which are generally run separately from the farms and only oversee the eggs until the day after they hatch. The hatcheries therefore did a major cull of eggs that were already incubating, taking most of the financial hit as well.

“I know there were eggs destroyed in hatcheries across the country as a result of this,” said Jean-Michel Laurin, president of the Canadian Poultry and Egg Processors Council.

He said he didn’t have numbers on a province by province basis, but that the lion’s share of Canada’s chicken industry is in Ontario and Quebec.

On Wednesday, the Quebec newspaper La Presse reported that two million eggs were destroyed in Quebec alone, along with over 200,000 chicks. Laurin and and Bishop-Spencer said they couldn’t confirm that any chicks had been euthanized.

When eggs or chicks do need to be destroyed, it’s done instantaneously according to a code of practice established by an ethics council and overseen by auditors, Laurin said. 

Chickens, after hatching, only live for about six or seven weeks before they’re killed and processed for food. To euthanize them—or “depopulate” a farm, as chicken people tend to say—before that stage is rare, said Bishop-Spencer.

“It would be a very last-minute decision, if the decision was made to depopulate them,” she said. It would only happen in moments of crisis when the farmers would realize “we have nowhere to send these birds.”

Right now, not only has demand dropped significantly, but processing plants are also more unpredictable than usual. There have been a handful closed temporarily because of COVID-19 outbreaks among the staff, and there are also more unforeseen staffing problems, and simply a slower pace of production because of the need to ensure physical distancing within the plants, she said. 

“In some cases, you know, farmers will try to keep the birds around as much as possible until the plants reopen,” she said, but chickens can’t collect indefinitely at farms as schedules change.

“It's not like a cow that lives outside.”

One thing that has helped a lot has been customer behaviour, she said—Canadians have been cooking with the punches.

“You’re seeing different cuts being made available at retail,” in grocery stories, she said, because the new cuts are faster and easier to process with limited capacity. 

“You're seeing whole birds being made available because it takes less work,” she said. “More bone-in, skin-on cuts, which is again, less labour-intensive."

That’s been true especially in Western Canada, where processing capacity has been most affected, she said. And all Canadians usually vastly prefer the opposite kind of chicken—boneless breasts—except for Quebecers, who tend to prefer dark meat. 

But Canadians haven’t skipped a beat, buying up all the whole chickens and bone-in cuts.

“Consumers have taken it all in stride,” she said. “Eighty-three per cent of Canadian consumers bought chicken last week. It's exactly the same [as before COVID].”

What makes it clear that people really are enthusiastically plunging into the unknown is how many cooking questions the Chicken Farmers of Canada website and Facebook page has been fielding, along with many extra views of their how-to videos.

“We've gotten more questions on how to cook whole birds and how to cut them up,” said Bishop-Spencer. “How to debone a bird, or what to do with the bones afterwards.”