Big 3 grocers the next target in cage-free eggs campaign: Mercy for Animals

[Chickens huddle in their cages at an egg processing plant at the Dwight Bell Farm in Atwater, Calif., in this Sept. 10, 2008 file photo. 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. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Marcio Jose Sanchez]

After winning commitments from several major restaurant brands to offer only cage-free eggs, animal rights group Mercy for Animals is taking aim at a new target: Canada’s biggest grocers.

Krista Hiddema, managing director of Canadian operations at Mercy for Animals, says that in the next couple of weeks, Canadians can expect to hear several more big announcements from organizations pledging to offer only cage-free eggs.

“Where I would genuinely like to see change happen very quickly, but I am less optimistic about, are the major grocers, including Sobeys, Metro and Loblaw,” says Hiddema.

She has been in extended talks with the major grocery store chains and says she has found little traction.

“I have been very disappointed in the dialogue I have had with the three major grocers in this country,” she adds. “We will engage in full campaigns against these organizations if they don’t commit in a fairly expeditious manner.”

No one from Sobeys or Loblaw was immediately available for comment when contacted. Metro declined to comment and referred questions to the Retail Council of Canada, which has been contacted for comment.

Under pressure from consumers seeking ethically-sourced food, Cara Operations Ltd. — owner of Harvey’s and Swiss Chalet, among others — announced last Friday that it will be switching to cage-free eggs in all of its restaurant locations by 2020. Cara operates more than 1,000 restaurants in Canada and owns a number of prominent chains, including Casey’s, New York Fries, Kelsey’s, Montana’s and Milestones.

“Our customers increasingly want to know more about the source of the food they eat. Our decision to source only cage-free eggs is one more step in this direction,” says Cara Foods CEO Bill Gregson said in a statement.

“I think Cara deserves accolades for how quickly they’re moving,” says Hiddema.

She calls Cara an example for other Canadian restaurant owners and says the negotiation process took only a matter of weeks.

Cara, however, is just the newest entry in a growing list of Canadian restaurant operators opting for more ethically-sourced food. Last Monday, Restaurant Brands International announced that its companies — Tim Hortons and Burger King — would only serve cage-free eggs in all North American locations by 2025.

Last year, McDonald’s committed to using only cage-free eggs by 2025 and Starbucks said it will do the same by 2020. Schools are also getting in on the action, with the University of Windsor, York University, Humber College, the University of Toronto, Boston University and Harvard University all either offering only cage-free eggs or committing to do so in the near future.

Hiddema says that convincing restaurants and organizations to work towards change can be a time-consuming task.

“Major restauranteurs know that the use of battery cages is inherently cruel and unacceptable, so when I reach out to them I’m pressuring them to do what they know they should have done all along,” she says. “Unfortunately it does take a campaign by an organization as powerful as Mercy for Animals for that change to actually occur, but I have not had a conversation with anyone who thinks that battery cages are OK.”

A hen’s welfare

On Thursday, the Egg Farmers of Canada announced that egg farmers would be instituting a systematic transition from conventional egg production towards alternative housing, with an aim of a majority of alternative housing by 2036. In addition, farmers committed to halting construction of any new conventional housing.

“Today in Canada most egg-laying hens are kept in traditional battery cages,” says professor Ian Duncan, emeritus chair in animal welfare at the University of Guelph’s Department of Animal and Poultry Science.

“These are small cages with a wire-mesh floor, a food trough and a drinker. The hens are crowded together with each hen having an area approximately equal to a sheet of letter-sized writing paper. There are usually four to seven hens in a cage.”

“Cage-free” on the other hand is an umbrella term for several different housing styles.

According to Duncan, in a free-run system hens are kept in a henhouse and given some sort of litter (often wood shavings) to forage in, as well as nest boxes and perches. A free range system is similar, but the hens also have access to the outdoors.

Over 90 per cent of the country’s approximately 1,000 egg farmers use conventional housing or battery cages to limit a bird’s movements. According to animal welfare activists, the cages deny chickens the right to fundamental behavioural needs like nesting, stretching their wings and foraging.

The Egg Farmers of Canada have said it plans to lower the number of hens in conventional housing to 50 per cent by 2024 and 15 per cent by 2031.

Glen Jennings, who runs an eco-friendly egg farm in Nova Scotia, said he is pleased about the shift towards cage-free eggs.

“This is an industry-wide decision that has been made using the best available scientific research that takes into account hen welfare, human health, resource implications, environmental impact and food production.”

When asked if he thought the cost of eggs would be going up as result of the transition, Jennings maintained that it was still too early to tell.

“It’s a huge decision and definitely there are cost implications. That’s why it’s going to take 20 years to get the whole industry converted over.”

Hiddema, however, is unimpressed.

“It is time for this country to commit, coast to coast, to ban battery cages. They are truly one of the most cruel elements of industrial farming where birds literally cannot move, cannot turn around often, cannot flap their wings and they cannot even engage in the most basic, day-to-day functions.”