One Step at a Time
In early October I attended the 32nd Annual Poultry Service Industry Workshop (PSIW) in Banff, Alta. One of the speakers was Dr. Roy Mutimer, corporate welfare and quality assurance director for Cobb-Vantress. He spoke on welfare issues in the European Union (primarily the United Kingdom).
One thing I took away from his talk is that big companies, such as Marks and Spencer, almost seem to be competing with one another for consumers over the issue of welfare standards. It seems the “doing the right thing” has turned into an enormously powerful marketing ploy to gain shoppers. In doing so, farmers and food processors have had to jump through hoops to comply.
United Kingdom producers face the daunting task of having to comply with diverse voluntary welfare codes of practice. This includes the Assured Chicken Production Scheme, Freedom Foods and the requirements imposed upon them by numerous supermarket chains. Committees and bodies overseeing such codes include international academics and welfare advocates, but, sadly, very few, if any, knowledgeable industry experts.
After listening to Dr. Mutimer’s talk I immediately thought of an article in this issue by Kimberly Sheppard titled “Egg Labelling and Hen Welfare” on page 14. It feels to me as though the issue of cages and laying hens has been getting too much attention as of late – even from me. But the two articles in this issue that discuss alternative systems highlight the need for more research and consumer (as well as big business) understanding.
Sheppard’s article does a fine job of outlining the confusion most consumers experience when they go to the grocery store and see a multitude of “functional” and “welfare” labels on egg products.
After hearing Dr. Mutimer’s comments, it also indirectly points to confusion amongst grocery chains, who are swayed by welfare advocates without fully understanding what the difference between “free-run,” “free-range” and conventional systems means.
Written for the consumer audience, Sheppard’s article outlines the differences between the systems and the inherent difficulties and benefits of each with respect to bird health and welfare. It doesn’t promote one or the other, but rather provides context and points out that “the answer to improving laying hen welfare is by no means as simple as freeing hens from cages.”
She also correctly identifies the fact that “a continuing demand by the general public for cheap eggs means that high hen density is a necessary component of egg production regardless of the production system employed.” It’s been shown that consumers, when push comes to shove, will choose a cheap option despite their conscience. To be cost effective, the welfare “savings” from alternative systems could be compromised.
In the article “Going Full Circle” (on page 10), you’ll read about Ray Nickel, a B.C. producer who understands the increasing demand for alternative production yet faces a dilemma shared by all other producers – having to take a huge leap of faith and invest in alternative systems.
He compromised, and converted an old cattle barn to house an aviary system, saving him on costs while allowing him to try out this alternative system. He’s one of few in North America trying this on a commercial scale and I hope to bring his experiences to you in a future issue so that we may all understand the challenges and benefits. n
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