Cracking into cage-free eggs

Humane Society’s ChickenOut campaign promotes awareness of battery-cage hens to Canadian universities

Queen’s uses factory-farmed eggs from Burnbrae farms
Queen’s uses factory-farmed eggs from Burnbrae farms

University residences across the country are switching to cage-free shell eggs as part of an effort to provide students with more humanely-produced foods.

According to Bruce Passmore at the Humane Society International (HSI), conventional eggs are produced by hens enclosed in wire cages approximately 432 to 555 square centimetres in size, about three quarters of a tabloid-sized paper. The height of these cages are 40 centimetres.

Passmore is the farm animal welfare co-ordinator for the Vancouver Humane Society and project co-ordinator of the ChickenOut Campaign—a project aiming to promote awareness about the production of battery cage eggs.

Passmore told the Journal many universities have signed on to the cage-free initiative because it’s a way to help improve animal welfare.

“Most university campuses have come to this issue based on animal welfare concerns because of the gross animal cruelty involved,” he said. “People feel helpless; they want to know what they can do as an individual.”

[It’s] the need to streamline. It’s branched from there to reduce production costs and maximize profit. Of course, this happens at the expense of animals. We’re becoming more and more efficient economically human-power wise, but animals are paying the price for those changes.”

Egg industry hens are kept in battery cages to maximize operational space and eliminate costs in feed and labour. An HSI report on the welfare of confined animals cited five to 10 birds are kept in a single battery cage, and are restricted from performing natural behaviours such as nesting.

Queen’s uses factory-farmed eggs, Joli Manson, food services resident district manager, told the Journal. Queen’s eggs come from Burnbrae farms, a family-owned business located in Lyn, near the town of Brockville.

Manson said the vast majority of large institutional users are forced into factory farming because there are not enough cage-free supply chains to manage high consumer demand.

“Eggs are subject to supply management. That means that [supply chains] need to buy quota to produce the quantity of eggs that would be required for an account as large as [Queen’s]. I don’t even think Burnbrae could supply free run; they do them for Loblaws, but it’s for a much smaller business. There just is not the supply chain at this point in time.”

Manson said the farming industry suffers handicapping challenges from ethical improvement, mostly due to high capital investments required for farmers to start an agricultural operation. The lack of cage-free farms results in insufficient goods to provide for large institutions.

“You can’t make a living on a farm. … This is a chicken or egg situation. What we have here is a scenario whereby the supply chain isn’t there because it’s virtually impossible to make a living as a farmer without having a second income,” she said. “I mean if you’re a dairy farmer milking 40 cows, you’re looking at a $5 million investment. So would you rather have it in a bank even when the economy is in this state, or would you rather invest it in a farm?”

Battery cages originate from the factory farm boom of the 1940s and 50s. According to the Humane Society’s ChickenOut campaign website, factory farming is a term used for the practice of producing agricultural products at high density, involving farms operating like that of an industrial factory. Factory farms were developed to reduce disease and increase hygiene in the poultry industry, Passmore said. He noted its development within the agribusiness industry paralleled the increasingly dwindling human workers on farms.

For both retailers and consumers, the difference between conventional and cage-free eggs is immediately noticeable in price. Passmore said most consumers are willing to pay that difference once they are aware of the inhumane agricultural practices behind factory farms.

“It comes down to a few pennies per egg,” Passmore said, “When a hen can’t stand up or flap her wings or barely turn around, it is not compatible with Canadian values. … When we’re talking only about few pennies per menu item, it’s really a small price to pay for improving the welfare of an animal.

“It does cost more, there’s no question, but by not making these changes, when we always reach for the cheapest item on the shelf, somebody pays the price. … In this case, it’s the hens.

“It’s definitely economically viable. We’re seeing more and more farmers are switching to cage free. It used to be that two per cent were cage-free productions, but that’s increasingly yearly. In B.C., it’s increased to approximately five per cent since the last couple of years. It could be even higher than that. We’re seeing these increases and it’s definitely better for farmers, the environment and animal welfare—so it makes us ask the question: why aren’t we doing it?”

Local organic producer Hank John Reinink grew up on a conventional farm before changing his farm’s operations to organic, due to his concerns for animal welfare.

“We decided just as a philosophy we weren’t happy with [conventional farming],” he told the Journal.

“We started with a free run operation, which is essentially birds are loose in the barn and they have nest boxes to go into. From there, it was a huge change, as far as operational changes go, to go with organic feed. The renovations were made to make that possible. Being organic involves feeding them organic feed and allowing hens access to outside.”

Reinink said many producers would prefer providing eggs more humanely, but acknowledged the high risks involved in its operation.

“There are very few people who farm—those who take the risk and invest that much money. So you get a limited number of producers supplying eggs for a larger population. Mathematically, the farms are going to get larger. … The average is about 25,000 to 30,000 hens on one Ontario egg farm.”

He added that for organic producers, margins of profit are larger than in conventional farms, but net incomes are lower.

“It’s because the margins [of profit in farming] are small you need larger number of birds to have a decent living. Organic farms are small, margins are a little different. … We live simply. We don’t have huge extravagances or vacations.”

Jay Strachan is the director of facilities and purchasing at Langara College. Langara was the second official institution to switch to cage-free shell eggs after Guelph, but first to switch all egg products.

Strachan said Langara has been successful in providing cage-free eggs on campus due to their food suppliers’ openness to the change.

“We were approached by students and lobbyists to go towards free range eggs. We … asked our food supplier Chartwells if it’s a possibility. They said there’s a cost factor involved, but we went through the process. Chartwells was willing to work with us. We talked about costs … and determined that the increase in the egg price wasn’t going to be that great. It ended up being no cost to the college students.”

Strachan said Chartwells agreed to absorb the extra costs incurred from the switch to cage-free eggs, in exchange for improved public relations with student consumers.

“They decided in the best interest of the college and the chickens that they would handle it themselves. They would carry the cost, but they would advertise the fact they were free range so the intentions of increased sales were to cover the additional cost. By advertising using cage-free eggs, students are more inclined to purchase eggs from them and their volume of sales would go up.”

Passmore said it’s entirely possible for Sodexo to purchase cage free eggs from Burnbrae. The challenge, he said, is to realize it can be done.

“Institutions like McGill and Ottawa have switched to cage-free as well. For Sodexo, it’s a new encouraging move and a move in the right direction. It’s a competitive decision. Chartwells is moving faster. It’s time [for] Sodexo to join in on these initiatives. Queens can break the path and lead with Sodexo with this. Queen’s does have the strength.”

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