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What Is the Cost?

What is the cost?


March 3, 2009
By Jim Knisley


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There is a new front in the cage war and it is, remarkably, municipal government.

There is a new front in the cage war and it is, remarkably, municipal government.

Municipal councils are often the redheaded step-children of government. They are loyal, dutiful, occasionally willful, but seldom taken all that seriously by their bigger federal and provincial brothers. They are focused on the mundane, yet essential, services of local life. They build and maintain roads, watch over sewer and water systems, take care of arenas and community halls, and spend a lot of time asking the federal and provincial governments for money.

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Municipal councils also get a flood of correspondence from lobby groups asking for their support to do everything from saving whales, to supporting the local United Way. Generally, the councils will pass resolutions in favour of local initiatives, oppose politically divisive items and ignore the vast majority of the missives. Periodically they will however wander into deep water. Being brave, or foolish and generally uninformed, they decide to tackle an issue that looks like mom’s apple pie and discover that it is toxic.

In recent months, three Ontario councils spurred on by letters and proposed motions from animal rights groups have passed resolutions saying that the municipality will not buy eggs produced by hens kept in battery cages. Since the municipalities buy few if any eggs, it is just a symbolic gesture, but symbolism counts.

The Egg Farmers of Ontario has responded to these motions with one of their own. They have sent Ontario’s municipalities a letter asking for the support of local farmers and pointing out that Ontario egg farmers use a wide range of production systems including enhanced cage, free run and free range. Ontario municipalities and Ontario consumers can choose to buy eggs from whatever system they prefer.
The egg farmers’ approach is mature and rational. It points out that consumers have the power to choose and egg producers will follow the consumers’ lead and produce what is in demand.

It’s unfortunate that animal rights groups decided to drag municipal councils into the debate over cages. Councils are ill equipped to assess the issue, having neither the knowledge nor the expertise. But since some have decided to forge ahead one would have hoped they would study before they vote.

It is disturbing that the councils seem not to have done that. They seem to have passed the animal rights/animal welfare motions with little analysis, little discussion and little debate.

The councillors seem not to have realized that there is a small mountain of research into cages.  Scientists have investigated the impact of cages on bird welfare, health, behaviour, production and economics, and from a host of other angles.

Some have even tried to get into the heads of the birds to determine what they would want or like. The birds seem reluctant to lie on a couch and discuss their deepest feelings and desires. The results that have been produced seem to provide more information on the analyst than the birds being analyzed.

That said, it does seem the birds will take advantage of more space when it is provided. They will make use of nesting boxes and perches when available. But are they happier – Who knows?

The one thing that is known is that eggs from enhanced or cageless systems cost more to produce and cost more at the grocery store. It is also known that the vast majority of consumers buy eggs based on price. While some consumers will put up the extra money to buy eggs from alternative systems, most will not.

Producers will use whatever production system consumers are willing to pay for. There is absolutely no sense in adopting systems with higher costs and watching sales drop and losses mount.

Eventually, scientists studying animal behaviour will find common ground with those studying animal health and welfare and with those studying production and economics. Working together they may even develop production systems that produce optimal results for hens, producers and consumers.

We aren’t there yet. What is needed is more research. Until that research is in, the best the industry can do is offer choices to consumers.

What is not needed are uneducated, uninformed, knee-jerk resolutions from municipal councils that are based on a simple, one-sided communications from a deterministic lobby group.

By passing a resolution that effectively comes out against buying eggs from hens kept in cages they are committing their municipality to buying more expensive eggs and seemingly encouraging their citizens to do the same.

While the cost to a municipality of buying free-range eggs is small, the cost to its citizens could be large. If councils want to encourage their citizens to buy free-range eggs the best way to do it would be to introduce a consumer subsidy that would allow their poor and poorest citizens to afford the higher price.

They can also be assured that if the demand is there local
farmers will produce what consumers are willing to pay for.