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The cage-free egg conflict: Why farmers and grocers may soon be butting heads

March 6, 2018

In Canada, more than 24 million hens are raised for egg production each year. Collectively, they lay approximately 616 million eggs annually. More than 90 per cent of these laying hens (21.6 million) spend their entire adult lives in cages. In British Columbia, about 76 per cent of laying hens are raised cage-free (according to the B.C. Egg Marketing Board, August 2017). For cage-free to be adopted as the new normal, consumers need to take action to make their interests more clear.

More information follows explaining why this issue is so important and how farmers and grocers are in disagreement.

Take action: Demonstrate your support for cage-free eggs

Here are five things you can do to make sure cage-free eggs are the wave of the (near) future.

  1. Speak with your wallet: Vow to purchase only cage-free eggs from grocers to show you support their promise to go cage-free.
  2. Get the egg upgrade: Some restaurants now offer a cage-free egg upgrade on the menu for 50 cents to $1.00. If you don’t see it, ask!
  3. Support restaurants, fast food chains and grocery stores that have already eliminated caged eggs from their stores and menus.
  4. Write a letter to your local grocer or favourite restaurant asking them to carry cage-free eggs, and be sure to follow up with them after. Not sure what to write? Use our handy customer request card (PDF) as an example (or feel free to send it to them).
  5. Print and distribute our egg labels brochure (PDF) and our egg label poster (jpg) to grocers, restaurants, and even friends and family.

Change is happening, but it may be slower than you’d like

Right now, nearly 22 million Canadian hens spend their lives in what are called ‘battery cages’.

Battery cage facts:

  • Usually four to eight hens per cage
  • Floor space provided: approx. 22 x 22 cm (9 x 9 in) per hen (see red square, right)
  • Cage ceiling height: 35-40 cm (14-16 in)

Pros

  • Wire cage is easy to keep clean
  • Automatic feeding and watering systems
  • Automatic egg collection system
  • Manure collection and removal typically automated
  • Labour and training costs low
  • Allows for highest egg production on lowest amount of land

The image on the right illustrates the space provided per hen in battery cages (red square), enriched cages (yellow square) and on SPCA Certified farms (green square).

Cons

  • Very crowded – less than a square of paper, per hen
  • Cage ceiling is only a few centimeters above the hens’ heads
  • Bare environment/no enrichment (e.g. no nests, litter/bedding, perches, pecking or scratching objects)
  • Hens unable to nest, dustbathe, perch, wear down claws, open their wings or exercise
  • Boredom and frustration is common
  • Poor health may go unnoticed – it’s hard for workers to see hens in highest and lowest tiers (levels) of cages
Rows of hens housed in battery cages. Each cage houses four to eight birds. Each row is stacked six tiers (levels) high.

Many egg farmers prefer to use battery cages because of the ease of management the system provides: controlled feed and water intake, ease of manure management and egg collection, and improved hygiene (wire cages are easy to keep clean). The battery cage system allows for high production and efficiency with a low labour input. Translation: minimal feed, water and workers are required to produce a large number of eggs. Further, very little land is required to operate the system since hens don’t go outdoors and cages can be stacked on top of one another. This means low costs for the farmer and therefore, low egg prices for the consumer.

Critics of the battery cage system point out that because it is bare and crowded, it severely restricts hens from expressing the healthy, natural behaviours they are strongly motivated to perform. Hens don’t have the chance to dustbathe, perch, scratch the ground, stretch their wings, exercise, or even walk more than a few centimeters. These are all activities hens are very motivated to take part in and are important in keeping their skin, feathers, muscles, claws and bones healthy. Also, birds can’t nest in private when they are ready to lay an egg. When hens cannot perform these natural behaviours, boredom and frustration often result and may lead to problematic feather pecking, cannibalism and even death.

Retail commitment to selling cage-free eggs

Consumers have been demanding an end to cage housing for years. As a result, countries started to implement battery cage housing bans decades ago (e.g. Sweden 1988; Switzerland 1992; the Netherlands 1994; the European Union 1999; Germany 2007; Austria 2009).

In Canada, retailers responded to public demand for cage-free eggs in May 2016 when the Retail Council of Canada (RCC), which includes grocery store giants like Loblaw (Superstore), Wal-Mart and Sobeys, among others, announced their commitment to purchasing only cage-free eggs by 2025.

However, this promise came with a disclaimer: “this voluntary commitment is made recognizing the restrictions created by Canada’s supply management system and importantly this objective will have to be managed in the context of availability of supply within the domestic market.” (Source: David Wilkes, RCC Senior Vice President of Government Relations and Grocery Division). In other words, if farmers don’t produce enough cage-free eggs to supply these grocers, you won’t be seeing them on store shelves come 2025.

Agriculture’s response to public demand for cage-free eggs

In 2017, Canadian egg farmers revised their industry’s rule book (known as the Code of Practice) on raising egg-laying hens. In response to consumer demand, egg farmers agreed to phase out battery cage housing over the following 20 years (by 2036), with a minimum of 85 per cent of hens transitioned out of battery cages within 15 years’ time (by 2031).

The year 2036 is 11 years later than the RCC’s promise and Canadian egg farmers did not agree to phasing out all cages; just battery cages. Enriched cages (sometimes called ‘furnished cages’) are still allowed. But enriched cages do not offer many improvements over battery cages.

Enriched cage facts:

  • Population sizes vary and can be as high as 100 hens per cage
  • Floor space provided: approx. 27 x 28 cm (~ 11 x 11 in) per hen
  • Cage ceiling height: approx. 45 cm (18 in)

Pros

  • More space per hen than battery cages (see yellow square, right)
  • Low perches available
  • Small scratch pad available
  • Private nest space available
  • Wire cage is easy to keep clean
  • Automatic feeding and watering systems
  • Automatic egg collection system
  • Manure collection and removal typically automated
  • Labour and training costs low
  • Allows for large-scale egg production with minimal land input

The image on the right illustrates the space provided per hen in battery cages (red square), enriched cages (yellow square) and on SPCA Certified farms (green square).

Cons

  • Still very crowded – equal to a square of paper per hen
  • Cage ceiling still only a few centimeters above the hens’ heads
  • Lack of space limits ability to exercise, perch, scratch or nest when desired
  • No litter means hens cannot dustbathe
  • Boredom and frustration likely still common
  • Poor health may go unnoticed – it’s hard for workers to see hens in highest and lowest tiers
Hens housed in enriched cages. Each cage houses up to 100 birds. Each row is stacked three tiers (levels) high.

Like battery cages, enriched cages are easy to manage because wire housing is easy to keep clean, feed and water intake is controlled, and manure removal and egg collection are automated. Very few workers are required to run the system, so labour and training costs are low. Even though slightly more space is offered to hens in enriched systems, there is still very little land required to operate the system since hens don’t go outdoors and cages can be stacked on top of one another. This means the cost of producing eggs is still low for farmers and that translates into low egg prices for consumers.

Despite their improvements over battery cages, enriched cages are still viewed by critics as just another cage, and it’s been questioned how much enriched cages really do improve hen welfare. There is slightly more space per hen, but hens are still restricted in how much they can move about the cage and there is not enough nest, scratch or perch space to accommodate all the hens kept in the cage.

To find out more about the differences between caged and cage-free housing, read the article Thinking outside the cage: Achieving Higher Welfare for Egg-Laying Hens in Canada.

Public response to enriched cages

Many consumers have been demanding an end to all cages and some countries have responded by implementing bans on enriched cages, too (e.g. Germany 2012; Austria 2020; Belgium 2024). However, the Canadian egg industry is not (yet) on the same path. The switch to entirely cage-free housing is more than a generation away.

Further, because improving the caged environment has been the focus of research over the past 20 years, there has been significantly less interest from researchers in creating and maintaining successful cage-free environments, like free run and free range.

This is why consumers need to take action to make their interests more clear if they want to see cage-free adopted as the new normal.

Take action summary: Show your support for cage-free eggs

Here is a summary of the five things we mentioned earlier that you can do to make sure cage-free eggs are the wave of the near future (full list at the top of this article):

  1. Buy cage-free eggs only.
  2. Ask to upgrade to the cage-free egg option when you’re dining out.
  3. Support restaurants, fast food chains and grocery stores that are selling cage-free eggs.
  4. Write a letter to your local grocer or favourite restaurant asking them to carry cage-free eggs, and follow up with them. Use our customer request card (PDF) if you’re not sure what to write.
  5. Print and distribute our egg labels brochure (PDF) and our egg label poster (jpg) to grocers, restaurants, friends and family.

Learn more

Email our farm team for more information.

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