Canadian Poultry Magazine

Features New Technology Production
From the editor: Politics of Food

Economics of “cage-free” needs exploration


January 27, 2009
By Kristy Nudds


Topics

Just before Christmas, two cities in Ontario became the first to announce that they would become “cage-free.”

Just before Christmas, two cities in Ontario became the first to announce that they would become “cage-free.”

Members of the Pickering and Orillia (both located on the outskirts of Toronto) city councils have recommended that all city-run facilities stop using eggs from hens reared in traditional cages. These councils are also encouraging residents, including restaurants, caterers, retailers and wholesalers, to switch to certified organic, free-range eggs instead.

Advertisment

Another Ontario city, Port Colborne (located near Niagara Falls), made a similar announcement in mid-January. As expected, the Humane Society of Canada has applauded these recommendations.

It’s a definite win (but at this point only on paper) for welfare groups but is it for farmers and consumers? I don’t think so.

Interestingly, the day Port Colborne announced its recommendation to go cage-free, a study from the National Veterinary Institute in Sweden was released.  This study compared the health of laying hens reared in free-range and/or litter-based systems versus cage systems, noting mortality with the type of housing system used.

Results of this study show that mortality amongst caged hens was significantly lower. However, the researchers did note that many farmers lack the management knowledge necessary to combat the increased pressure of disease that exists in free-range systems.

But the researchers make an important point – that birds are more prone to disease in cage-free systems.  This is backed by numerous other studies in Europe since Sweden and other EU countries mandated that laying hens be reared in free-range and/or alternative (enriched) cage systems.

Without doubt there is niche market opportunity for eggs from alternative and/or free-range systems but to force this niche market onto entire cities is just bad politics. It’s likely a ploy to secure votes by appearing to do the “right thing,” even though the perception of what is right is skewed.

It’s becoming obvious that esthetics is driving the politics behind food production, forcing the industry to take a step backwards in some respects. Laying hens were originally taken off the floor and put into cage systems to reduce animal disease, improve food safety and increase production to feed a growing urban public.

It’s the last two points that I think are paramount. While producers and the marketing boards in Canada are willing to make necessary changes to support niche markets, if this “niche” grows into the “norm” too quickly by irresponsible city and university councils, what is the cost?

I don’t think enough attention has been paid to the economics of such decisions, primarily for the consumer.  Eggs are one of nature’s most perfect proteins, and advancements in bird health, genetics and productivity have allowed for consumers to meet their dietary needs without breaking the bank.

The increased costs of producing free-range will ultimately fall on the consumer. How can three cities, all of them located in economically depressed areas due to the massive closure of manufacturing industries located within, make such a decision?

While I support the moral right of anyone to choose what they want to eat and how they would like it to be produced, it is nonsense to force such a decision on the masses before the science and infrastructure is able to support it.