op ed articles

The egg industry faces an ultimatum

Either you unlock the battery cages that cruelly confine the hens or the Canadian consumer will do it for you

John Youngman
The Vancouver Sun, Special to the Sun
February 15, 2007

"Eggs are the new veal," Paul Shapiro pronounced last fall at a farm animal welfare conference in Toronto sponsored by the Canadian Coalition for Farm Animals.

And he should know. Shapiro is the director of farm animal campaigns for the Humane Society of the United States, the largest animal-protection organization in North America, which has helped achieved spectacular victories for intensively-reared laying hens and mother pigs in the U.S.

The HSUS was a key player behind recent moves by Florida and Arizona to ban "sow stalls," heavy metal cages used to confine mother pigs their entire adult lives. Measuring just two feet wide by seven feet long, the cages are so small they prevent the mother pig from turning around.

Sow stalls are the preferred method of production for sow breeders in Canada and the U.S., and represent the high-water mark in the greed-over-welfare mindset that has gripped modern agribusiness.

This month, Canada's largest pork producer, Maple Leaf Foods, announced it would be phasing out sow stalls in all of its corporate-owned operations over the next decade. The announcement came on the heels of an identical announcement a week earlier by Smithfield Foods, America's largest pork producer. Smithfield specifically credited the demand by consumers and big corporate customers such as Wal-Mart and McDonald's for its decision.

The announcements by the pork giants represent the biggest advance in farm animal welfare in the history of North American agribusiness.

Like the pork industry, Canada's egg industry is predicated on "intensive confinement" – the extreme confinement of animals to the point of virtual immobilization – in the name of efficiency.

Ninety-eight percent of Canada's 26 million laying hens are confined in "battery cages," small wire-mesh cages where four or more birds are crammed together in an area the size of a microwave oven -- a space too small for the birds to open their wings.

Every natural instinct of the hen is thwarted, leading to a range of behavioural vices that can include pecking out her own feathers and cannibalizing her cage mates.

After enduring such misery and deprivation for a year or more, the hen's productivity wanes and she is considered "spent," at which point she is often bald from feather-pecking and the constant grinding of her body against the wire mesh and other birds.

Battery cages are considered so cruel the European Union has moved to ban them effective 2012.

Over and above its victories for mother pigs, the HSUS has been successful in convincing a growing number of organizations – mostly public institutions, major corporations and retail food chains sensitive to public opinion – to reject battery eggs in favour of cage-free eggs.

American corporations, AOL and Google, have stopped serving battery eggs in their corporate dining facilities. Nearly 100 American schools and universities have enacted policies to eliminate or drastically reduce their use of battery eggs.

American grocery chains Earth Fare, Whole Foods Marketplace and Wild Oats Natural Marketplace have agreed to stop selling battery eggs.

Trader Joe's has converted its brand eggs to cage-free, and Ben & Jerry's now uses only cage-free eggs in its ice cream. Last month, Burgerville became the first U.S. restaurant chain to reject battery eggs.

In Canada, the cities of Toronto, Vancouver, Richmond, North Vancouver and New Westminster are considering cage-free egg policies. The University of Guelph, the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University and the B.C. Institute of Technology are considering similar policies.

On the Canadian retail front, Whole Foods Market, Capers Community Markets and Planet Organic have stopped selling battery eggs.

The Canadian public is firmly behind efforts to eradicate intensive confinement from the pork and egg industries. According to a 2005 Decima research poll conducted for CCFA:

Despite this conclusive evidence of what Canadian consumers want, and efforts by the hog industry to move away from intensive confinement, the egg industry staunchly stands by its use of cages.

The writing is on the wall for Canada's egg industry: Get cracking and unlock the cages, or consumers will do it for you.

John Youngman is a Winnipeg-based Director of the Canadian Coalition for Farm Animals.