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Agriculture This Week - The impact of big companies on ag

In Canada raising poultry, whether for meat, or eggs, is something of a niche sector in agriculture, given it has been supply-managed for years now.

In Canada raising poultry, whether for meat, or eggs, is something of a niche sector in agriculture, given it has been supply-managed for years now.

Under a couple of recently agreed to trade deals the sector is likely to change dramatically, some suggest all but disappear, in the years ahead, but that is column fodder for another today.

More immediate though is the impact business is having on the way eggs are going to be produced.

On Feb 1, Tim Hortons announced a commitment to source only cage-free eggs for its restaurants in Canada, the US and Mexico by 2025.

“Tim Hortons’ is responsible for approximately six out of every ten egg sandwiches sold in Canada – about 288 million per year,” detailed a release from World Animal Protection (WAP).

“Tim Hortons’ announcement today is the most substantial cage-free sourcing commitment made by a Canadian restaurant chain we’ve seen to date,” says World Animal Protection Canada’s Executive Director Josey Kitson in the release, “and will positively impact the lives of more than 650,000 laying hens in Canada alone.”

Now WAP has its agenda, but it is groups like theirs which influence businesses such as Tim Hortons to make such a move.

And with Tim Hortons going the cage-free egg direction, the industry may well be dragged along.

A day after the Tim Hortons announcement six leading Canadian animal protection agencies called on A&W Food Services of Canada to stop using eggs from caged-hens.

While announcements by other restaurant chains, including Tim Hortons and McDonald’s Canada, that they will go cage-free, have been made, and A&W has committed to using ‘enriched cages’ for laying hens, which are larger than the battery cages the groups have rallied against, the six are not satisfied.

The letter, addressed to A&W CEO Paul Hollands, states via a release: “Enriched cages severely restrict important physical activities including running, flying and wing-flapping and do not permit unrestrained perching and dustbathing.”  

The letter goes on to suggest consumers have turned against eggs from caged hens and that, “To them and to the wider public, a cage is a cage.”

That is a statement that is difficult to quantify.

I happen to be sitting in a fast food restaurant as I write this and I doubt they’ve had many, if any, breakfast customers ask how the hens laying the eggs they order are raised.

That said if the question were asked ‘should a laying hen be housed in a cage, or running in a yard?’ the best choice would appear to be the yard. Of course I grew up on a farm where a pen of laying hens would at times begin pecking one of the flock, and within a short time the damage was so great nothing could be done. All is not rosy free range either.

The WAP release does note such a move by Tim Hortons will have a cost.

“Tim Hortons’ commitment to source cage-free eggs for its more than 4,500 North American restaurants will require a substantial investment from Canadian egg producers,” it detailed.

And therein lies a significant aspect of the equation. It is doubtful the concerned citizens want their breakfast sandwiches to cost more, so the chain can pay more for cage-free eggs to help producers offset the cost of converting their operations.

The future of laying operations has been under review by the National Farm Animal Care Council’s (NFACC) Code of Practice Development Committee for the egg-laying hen industry. The process brings together farmers with the humane movement, veterinarians, animal welfare scientists and other stakeholders to deliberate and come to consensus on national Codes of Practice that improve animal welfare based on independent scientific literature.

A moratorium on construction of new barren battery cages is part of those discussions, as are a possible phase out of such systems.

The Egg Farmers of Canada’s (EFC) has proposed 20-year phase out of these systems.

Not surprisingly the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies (CFHS) is not pleased suggesting the EFC timeframe is nearly twice as long as the 12 years provided in the European Union for the same transition.

And so the producer is stuck in a time of uncertainty, almost assuredly facing additional costs to deal with a changing marketplace based on what is certainly a vocal opposition, but one where the grassroots support is difficult to quantify, and to determine whether they are making choices based on emotion, or solid research.

Calvin Daniels is Assistant Editor with Yorkton This Week.