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Calgary Co-Op first supermarket to take a stand and use only ethical eggs and pork

A major Alberta grocery chain is moving toward more ethical meat products after an annual general meeting voted to do away with eggs and pork that comes from caged animals.

Calgary Co-op members voted this week to stop selling eggs and pork from animals that have been kept in enclosed spaces. The group elected to phase out such pig and chicken products over the course of five years and replace them entirely with free range and humanely-treated animals.

The motion won't be passed until it is approved by the co-op's board of directors. It would be the first major Canadian grocery store to sell only the ethical food alternatives. The Calgary Co-op has 23 stores across Alberta, 44,000 members and annual revenue of about $1 billion.

[ Related: Calgary Co-op members vote in favour of ethical eggs, pork ]

The Calgary Herald reports that co-op shoppers are jumping over the moon about the move, underlining the growing interest in free-range food.

“I want a pig to be a pig and I want a chicken to be a chicken,” Tina Evers told the newspaper. “I figure if it’s happy and it’s treated well and fed well, then it’s going to nourish me much better than something that’s raised in a cage or confined and never allowed to move around.”

The vote is being viewed by many as tangible proof not only that the public is becoming increasingly concerned and aware of the origins of its food, but that businesses are best served taking those concerns into account.

Clint Robertson, the co-op member who put forward the motion, says abandoning unethical farming practices is the right thing to do.

Robertson told CBC's As It Happens:

The immediate reason (for the motion) is to push the industry. This is more than just about Calgary Co-op, but Calgary Co-op is a very big presence here in the city and the region. And if Calgary Co-op moves in this direction, it will push the industry. I really feel this will have a domino effect in Alberta and western Canada, and maybe more broadly.

Free-range eggs and cage-free animals are routinely sold at a higher price, ultimately because it costs more to treat animals individually rather than with a "conveyor belt mentality." It will be key to see whether Calgary Co-op members remain willing to pay higher prices for their items.

An Alberta Pork spokesperson told CBC News the only way it will be economical for pork producers the phase in new techniques, such as cage-free farming, is if consumers are willing to spend more.

Meantime, an Egg Farmers of Alberta spokesperson told the network it is improper for grocery stores to dictate what kind of food is available for shoppers.

That thinking is probably why the first strike for the movement comes at a co-op, a grocery store that caters to members.

[ More Brew: Changes to hog farming proposed after undercover video ]

This is just a small piece of a larger movement toward ethical farming. Changes have already been proposed in Manitoba's pork industry, following the release last year of a damning video from one of the province's farming operations.

Undercover video capturing stark conditions in a facility north of Winnipeg was released publicly, which claimed to depict abuse and mistreatment of caged animals.

The group behind that video, Mercy For Animals Canada, says the progress seen at Calgary Co-op is encouraging, most major Canadian chains still rely on animals "subjected to lives of misery and deprivation."

Robertson and others have argued that the debate really comes down to an issue of perception. If Canadians understood their food was coming from sources that mistreated and caged their animals, there would be a larger demand for change.

The other side of the debate is whether consumers really are willing to pay more for eggs and pork. No doubt the industry will be watching whether Calgary Co-op’s switchover is a success.

It will go a long way to determine if niche ideas such as free-range eggs spread their wings and fly into larger markets.