Walmart and Disney go cage-free, but it’s just the beginning

Open the barn doors: Walmart and Disneyland have announced they’re joining a long list of fast food chains and Canadian grocers that have pledged to stop selling eggs from battery-caged hens. 

It’s a major victory for hens and animal welfare advocates. But what’s to stop farmers from swapping cramped cages for cramped barns?

Ian Duncan has been studying chicken behaviour for 50 years. The emeritus chair of animal welfare at U of Guelph told the National Animal Welfare Conference in Toronto last month that birds need room to express their natural behaviours. Battery cages give birds little more than a letter-sized sheet of paper each, with no room to move, perch, dust bathe, forage and do all the things that chickens do. 

But Duncan has also seen free-run systems that “can be a nightmare.” Unless farmers allot enough space for birds and give them ample access to amenities like nesting boxes and perches, things can get real ugly real fast, with spikes in cannibalism, feather-pecking and deadly pile-ups.

Cram birds into a barren barn, says BC SPCA senior manager of stakeholder relations Geoff Urton, and “you’re essentially replacing small cages with one large one.” Urton adds, “That absolutely happens, and people are paying twice as much for [those eggs].” 

That has some industry players squawking that grocers and food chains shouldn’t be rushing to demand cage-free, and that larger “enriched” or “furnished” cages with basic perches and nest boxes could be safer for hens.

But Canadian Federation of Humane Societies (CFHS) CEO Barbara Cartwright disagrees. 

“As with any system, if [cage-free] is not done correctly it can lead to difficulties. When the cage-free system is designed and implemented well, it’s a significant step forward for hen welfare. It’s critical in the move to cage-free to put solid standards in place that farmers can use as guidelines to ensure they’re installing humane systems.”

Both Urton and Duncan, who are representing the CFHS in negotiations with farmers on strengthening Canada’s 30-year-old codes of practice for egg farms, say part of the problem is that there’s been no legal definition of free-run or free-range eggs, so it’s been a free-for-all.

That’s something the revised national code of practice should rectify. There should be clear minimums for space allowances, nesting, perches, and dust bathing areas in cage-free systems. But the code will still just be guidelines, not law, at least in most provinces. 

So who will be monitoring farms to ensure these codes are being followed? It looks like the Egg Farmers of Canada (EFC) will continue doing on-farm assessments of their 1,000 members, but isn’t that sort of like the fox guarding the henhouse? Urton suggests that third-party audits will be needed to assure customers that the codes are being adhered to.

Timelines are another sticking point. Back in February, the group announced it’d be getting rid of battery cages by 2036. That’s 20 years from now, and some of EFC’s clients aren’t planning to wait that long. Costco, Walmart, Sobeys, Metro and Loblaw say they’ll be buying nothing but cage-free by 2025. 

Don’t miss: 5 myths about your ethical foods | @ecoholicnation

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