Layer Housing Transition: A pledge kept?
By Treena HeinFeatures Emerging Trends
Several years after major brands pledged to source only cage-free eggs by 2025, many have eased off that promise. Here's a look at where things stand today.
When major companies make sourcing commitments of any kind, no one – least of all the companies themselves – takes it lightly. Due to their very public nature, pledges do seem rather written in stone. But this isn’t always how it goes. In fact, pledges made by some of the largest food companies in Canada on sourcing only cage-free eggs could better be characterized as written in sand at this point. However, many in the industry, including producers and bird welfare experts, say there is good reason for that.
In 2016, following the release of a new non-mandatory National Farm Animal Care Council (NFACC) Code of Practice for laying hens in Canada – and under increasing pressure from activist groups – over 100 major Canadian food companies took action.
The Retail Council of Canada (RCC, which includes giant grocery store chains like Loblaw, Sobeys and Metro), leading restaurant chains (Tim Hortons, McDonalds, etc.) and food product makers (Nestlé, Kraft Heinz, etc.) announced they would stop selling eggs from hens kept in any type of cages by 2025.
Much has transpired since then, from all angles. On the retail side, for example, in 2021, RCC members announced they would abandon their cage-free pledge. RCC stated at the time that it will “pursue and make commitments solely through NFACC,” and would not respond for any clarification or update.
For its part, Loblaw states on its website that since 2016, “we have worked with our suppliers to achieve these targets,” but “it has become clear that our farmer partners are unable to meet these timelines. While we are proud of the progress we have made, including converting all President’s Choice shell eggs to cage-free…we continue to work with our egg…partners to make progress.”
Animals rights groups have been disappointed with this development, no matter the reasons given for it. As explained in a 2022 Toronto Star opinion piece, a spokesperson at Mercy For Animals states that “instead of requiring cage-free systems, the RCC allows farmers to invest in slightly larger enriched cages, despite consumer opposition,” and despite “scientific evidence that cage systems are worse for animal welfare.”
For an update on the scientific evidence, we contacted expert poultry behaviour scientist Dr. Tina Widowski, who serves as the Egg Farmers of Canada Chair in Poultry Welfare at University of Guelph in Ontario. Widowski explains that “as indicated in the scientists’ committee report for the Codes of Practice, there are welfare trade-offs between [free run/cage-free and enriched colony cage] systems.”
She says, “The welfare outcomes for hens in enriched systems can be very good, but expression of dust bathing and foraging are limited. These behaviours can be performed in the litter in non-cage systems, but the risks for poor welfare outcomes such as mortality, feather pecking and injuries are greater.
“That’s why the multi-stakeholder committee that developed the Code decided that both types of housing systems were acceptable for Canada, and I do not think this has changed since we wrote that report.”
Widowski adds that “there is evidence that the welfare problems that tend to occur more in non-cage systems, for example, higher mortality and feather pecking, can improve with management experience, but non-cage housing is not a good fit for all managers.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture factsheet on laying hen housing echoes these points. “Hens can experience stress in all housing types, and no single housing system gets high scores on all welfare parameters. Likewise, no single breed of laying hen is perfectly adapted to all types of housing systems. Additionally, management of each system has a profound impact on the welfare of the birds in that system.”
Egg Farmers of Canada (EFC) has just released its latest data on how many Canadian egg farmers have been installing either enriched or free-run housing to replace conventional cage housing in the seven years since the hen housing transition plan was announced.
According to EFC’s 2022 Annual Report, the fraction of Canadian laying hens being housed in conventional systems reached about 51 per cent in 2022. About 32 per cent of hens live in enriched housing, which is a big increase from 14 per cent in 2018. About 17 per cent are reared in either free run, free range or organic systems (see sidebar for details). Free run housing adoption has only grown 2 per cent, from 9 to 11 per cent, since 2018.
EFC states that “demand for all product varieties continues to be met and…EFC estimates that conventional production methods will be completely phased out by 2032 – four years ahead of the 2036 deadline.”
Melissa Matlow, campaign director for World Animal Protection, says “it is great to hear that conventional cages are on track to being phased-out four years ahead of time but disappointing to hear about the growth in enriched cages versus organic, free run and free-range. To our organization and a growing number of consumers, a cage is still a cage.”
EFC adds that it continues to advance projects that support the transition to alternative production methods. “[Last year] saw the continuation of the National Alternative Housing Project, which seeks to develop a program to support free run, free range and organic egg requirements in the Canadian egg supply chain as demand grows for these types of production.” The project team consists of representatives from the processing and grading sectors, egg boards and EFC.
EFC Chair Roger Pelissero says “a central outcome when we consider something as sizable as transitioning an entire agricultural supply chain is that the egg supply matches consumer demand across all product varieties and that prices remain reasonable for Canadian families, especially at a time when all Canadian families are dealing with inflationary pressures.
“We also must not lose sight of critical factors including bird health and welfare, economics, food safety, worker health and safety, and the environmental impact of egg production – these are all key areas that are part of our overall systematic approach to phasing out conventional housing systems.”
Returning to retailer and restaurant commitments, in its 2022 Scorecard document, Mercy for Animals reports that 12 firms in Canada have met their commitments to only source cage-free eggs by 2025. They are Harvey’s, Unilever, Swiss Chalet, Whole Foods, Pita Pit, Starbucks, Chipotle Mexican Grill, The Keg, Taco Bell, Wendy’s and baked good chain Panago.
The report praises McCain Foods, which “demonstrated impressive progress in just one year and is now publicly reporting 93 per cent cage-free sourcing, up from 52 per cent reported for the first time in 2021.”
In the retailer sphere, “for the second year in a row, Save-On-Foods is reporting the highest cage-free transition rate among major Canadian retailers and attributes this success to a comprehensive labelling and marketing program. With Save-On’s cage-free egg sales reaching 40 per cent in 2022, this west coast grocery chain is well on its way to becoming the first major retailer to transition its entire supply chain to cage-free.”
Also, “Sobeys reported annual cage-free progress for its total supply chain for the second time, reaching 18 per cent in 2022.” However, “iconic Canadian brand and the country’s highest-grossing restaurant chain, Tim Hortons, has once again failed to publicly report any progress toward the company’s commitment to banning cages from its Canadian supply chain.”
To the best of Canadian Poultry’s knowledge, consumer views on cage-free versus enriched housing as alternatives to conventional cages have not been specifically measured in Canada.
However, a university survey study in the U.S. several years ago concluded that consumers don’t expect retailers to only offer cage-free eggs by 2026. Among other findings, the survey found that consumers prefer minimum cage size requirements over banning the production of conventional eggs.
And while some consumers will pay more for cage-free eggs, most will buy whichever eggs are less expensive. Consumers would also rather see government policies that mandate particular housing over unverifiable cage-free labeling.
Layer housing by the numbers
From the Egg Farmers of Canada 2022 Annual Report, hens in various types of housing in 2022.
- Conventional Cages: 51 per cent (71 per cent in 2018)
- Enriched: 32 per cent (14 in 2018)
- Free Run: 11 per cent (9 in 2018)
- Organic: 5.1 per cent (4.2 in 2018)
- Free Range: 1.4 per cent (1 per cent in 2018)
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