by SUSAN MANN
Canadian egg farmers are starting to shift away from conventional housing for hens and despite a major push from restaurant chains for cage-free eggs, the change doesn’t mean all hens will be out of cages.
There were three major announcements focusing on eggs this week. Early in the week, Tim Hortons and Burger King (part of a company called Restaurant Brands International) announced plans to transition to getting its eggs from suppliers using cage-free hen housing by 2025. Another chain, Cara Foods (with Harvey’s, Swiss Chalet, Kelsey’s and East Side Mario’s under its banner), said Thursday it too would be transitioning to sourcing eggs from cage free hens with 2020 as its target date for all egg supplies to come from cage free hens.
Then on Friday Egg Farmers of Canada announced the industry is collectively switching to alternative housing for hens. All production would come from enriched housing, free run aviary or free-range hens by 2036, the group says.
Currently about 90 per cent of Canada’s egg production comes from hens in conventional housing, while the remaining 10 per cent is from birds in enriched housing, free-run aviary or free-range systems, a Feb. 5 press release from Egg Farmers says.
In enriched housing, hens are housed in groups in a cage, and they’re able to walk around, lay eggs in nest boxes and use perches.
In a free run aviary system, the birds have perches and nest boxes off the ground and the hens are on the floor in a barn but not in cages. Free-range hens are also housed on the floor of a barn and they have access to the outside.
The Egg Farmers’ announcement includes a commitment to stop the installation of any new conventional housing systems effective July 1. The plan calls for 50 per cent of the Canadian production to be from alternative housing systems within eight years, and in 15 years 85 per cent of production would come from alternatively housed hens.
A national working group and the entire egg supply chain will oversee the plan, the release says.
It would be up to farmers to decide which housing system they’d want to use. About 70 per cent of Canada’s production is shell eggs earmarked for the retail market (including a portion of that for restaurants) and 30 per cent goes to the processed and further processed markets, says Tim Lambert, Egg Farmers of Canada CEO.
Lambert says their announcement wasn’t made in response to the restaurants’ statements. Instead, Egg Farmers has been looking for science-based, viable alternatives to conventional housing to meet shifting societal expectations.
One industry spokesman says major restaurant chains are ignoring important scientific information on hen health and other considerations in their push for eggs produced from hens housed cage free.
Egg Famers of Ontario chair Scott Graham says farmers are concerned the chains’ insistence on cage-free hen housing means “we’re moving in a direction that sometimes doesn’t focus on hen health and the welfare of the birds.” The decision also sometimes doesn’t take food safety and sustainability into account.
He made the comments in response to the Tim Hortons announcement.
Graham says a three-year study released by the United States-based Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply in March 2015 compared conventional, enriched colony and cage-free aviary systems. Some of its findings saw the enriched system “as probably the most sustainable from the standpoint of affordability, worker health and safety, animal health and wellbeing and environmental considerations,” he says.
Graham says they’re disappointed, but not surprised, by the recent announcement from Tim Hortons and Burger King.
Jodi Bond, Tim Hortons communications director, says by email they “politely decline an interview.”
Tim Hortons’ website outlines a commitment to improving animal welfare in the company’s supply chain: “While we are not directly involved in the raising, handling, transportation or processing of animals, we consider animal welfare to apply to all aspects of farm animal care within our supply chain.”
Animal welfare group, World Animal Protection, applauds the cage-free statement by Tim Hortons. It notes in a Feb. 1 press release the company’s announcement “is the most significant in terms of the number of Canadian hens impacted.”
World Animal Protection’s declaration in its Feb. 1 press release that the future of egg production in Canada is cage-free is at odds with what’s currently being developed in the laying hen code of practice by the National Farm Animal Care Council. The code of practice, being put together by the council along with a diverse group of stakeholders, outlines guidelines for the care and handling of farm animals.
It is projected to be released for public comment in the spring.
Graham says what they’re talking about in the code is a move to enriched housing from the conventional housing. But “we will move based on what the market directs us to do. We’re going to always produce and respond to the market.”
Darren Vanstone, World Animal Protection corporate engagement manager for North America, says under the code of practice for laying hens “battery cages are still allowed. Our hope is that will be phased out through the new code of practice that will be released this year.”
World Animal Protection, formerly known as the World Society for the Protection of Animals, sits on the National Animal Care Council.
Vanstone says the commitments from Tim Hortons and one from McDonald’s in 2015 show that the best long-term plan for farmers is to transition to cage-free housing rather than enriched housing. The enriched housing is an improvement “over battery cages,” he says. However, “I do think that, from the consumer side, they don’t actually see a lot of difference between a battery cage and an enriched cage. And the cage is really the issue.”
Developments in the United States and around the world to switch to cage-free egg production mean “it’s unlikely that enriched cages are going to be fine in seven to 10 years,” he notes. “My concern is by focusing on enriched cages, what we’re going to do is have a bunch of producers that have spent a lot of money to get into enriched cages only to find out consumers and (the farmers’) customers, which are the large food companies, don’t want to purchase from that.”
Vanstone says his group isn’t trying to shut down egg production in Canada. Instead its focus is on finding “practical ways to prevent animal suffering worldwide,” the group’s release says. BF