TORONTO – A decision by Tim Hortons and Burger King to serve only cage-free eggs by 2025 is shining a spotlight on how the breakfast staple makes it from farm to plate.
While the transition is nearly a decade away, Egg Farmers Canada says that’s because it will take time.
More than 90 per cent of the country’s roughly 1,000 registered commercial egg-producing farms keep their hens in conventional housing, said Peter Clarke, the chairman of Egg Farmers Canada.
“It isn’t just like turning a light switch on and off,” he said. “It takes a significant amount of time to be able to do that.”
The average farm has between 10,000 and 20,000 hens. Some only house several hundred and others as many as 400,000 hens.
Here’s a more in-depth look at how eggs are sourced in Canada:
The wire-floor cages house about four to seven hens, said Debra Probert, the Vancouver Humane Society’s executive director. They give each chicken the living space of about a standard piece of paper measuring 8.5 inches by 11 inches.
Probert estimates 95 per cent of Canada’s egg producers operate use battery cages.
Battery cages are “more convenient for the farmer than it is, obviously, for the hens,” she said.
These cages are larger, housing dozens of hens, said Tina Widowski, an animal and poultry science professor at the University of Guelph who holds the research chair in poultry welfare at Egg Farmers of Canada. The cages provide perches and somewhat private nesting areas.
She said enriched cages give chickens more space, allowing them to exhibit natural behaviours like dust bathing, perching and laying eggs in private.
Clarke said he prefers this type of hen housing because it also protects the health of farmers, as it exposes them to less dust and ammonia.
A&W, a notable standout from its competitors, has committed to source all its eggs from hens in enriched cages by the close of the year, much to the dismay of animal rights groups pushing for a cage-free industry.
Farmers are under growing pressure to shift to this type of housing as more companies promise to provide eggs from hens that don’t live in cages. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that hens will suddenly be meandering outside as they please.
“We’re not saying that definitely that cage-free is cruelty-free,” Probert said. “It’s not.”
Cage-free hens may live in a free-run system, housed in an aviary in a barn without access to the outside world, she said.
Clarke and Widowski say cage-free living conditions have some trade-offs. They can poorly impact chicken and farmer health by exposing them to irritants like dust and can cost more to operate.
The other option — what Probert calls “the ideal” — is free-range hens, which are allowed to roam outside. All certified organic eggs in Canada must come from free-range hens.
It’s unclear which cage-free option Tim Hortons, Burger King and other restaurants making such public declarations will source their eggs from. Cage-free never means chickens will go outside, said Widowski, unless they’re producing free-range or certified organic eggs.
Still, Probert calls the incremental change to move hens out of cages a positive step.
“Once they’re out of cages, that makes a huge difference.
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