Does ‘cage-free’ really lead to better animal welfare?

Farm group releases draft code of practice for laying hens amid conflicting studies about what’s best for animal health

Jackie Wepruk was trying to be tactful, but her body language said otherwise.

Wepruk twisted her body and tightened her mouth as she used the words “cage free,” as if it pained her to utter the phrase.

Wepruk is general manager of the National Farm Animal Care Council, a group with a diverse array of members and associate members, including livestock producer associations, Maple Leaf Foods, McDonald’s, Loblaws and the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies.

Together, those groups and companies collaborate to develop voluntary codes of practice for the care and handling of livestock in Canada.

In June, after years of meetings and discussion, the NFACC released a draft code of practice for laying hens.

The code provides guidance on switching from conventional cages to enriched cages and free-run systems for hens. Hens in enriched cages have more space per bird, along with perches and nest boxes for laying eggs.

However, Canadian egg farmers may never transition to enriched cages because grocers and fast food restaurants have a different agenda for eggs.

The Retail Council of Canada, which represents Loblaws, Wal-Mart Canada, Sobeys and other grocers, said in May that its members will buy cage-free eggs by the end of 2025. Tim Hortons, McDonald’s and other fast food chains have made similar commitments.

The promises sound and feel good, but does cage-free really lead to better animal welfare?

“It’s very easy to say ‘cage free,’ but those two words (by) themselves do not communicate what the welfare status is for the birds in those systems,” said Wepruk, who was in Winnipeg in late September for the One Welfare Conference, which focused on the connection between animal and human welfare.

“The public has been led to believe that by simply using two words, ‘cage free,’ that this is somehow going to solve all the welfare problems out there for laying hens.”

A University of California Davis study from last year indicated that cage free isn’t better than cages. Researchers looked at free-run and enriched cages and concluded each system has negatives and positives.

Karen Schwean-Lardner, an assistant professor in animal science who studies poultry welfare at the University of Saskatchewan, said caged hens are less likely to fight because the birds develop a pecking order in a cage.

In contrast, the California study suggested that bird mortality is twice as high in a free-run system. Open housing is more violent because it’s impossible to comprehend a pecking order when thousands of birds move freely throughout a barn.

The NFACC uses a consensus approach, in which representatives of Egg Farmers of Canada must reach an agreement with representatives of the humane society and myriad other members of the code committee.

Wepruk said the format promotes spirited discussions about animal welfare.

“The code development committee’s job is to focus on the welfare of animals. Its (job) is not to focus on sound bites,” she said.

“It’s not a popularity contest. It’s about serving the animals well.”

She may be weary of the catch phrase, but Wepruk also understands the reality of the business world.

Activist groups and segments of the public have exerted pressure on grocers and restaurant chains over egg production practices. As well, companies are in the business of serving customers rather than farmers.

“The challenge that they face is threats to their brand and reputation,” Wepruk said.

The challenge for the NFACC is convincing corporations to stick with the council and its process for developing codes of practice that make sense for farmers, retailers and humane societies and provides the best possible welfare for livestock.

“They (companies) want to support the code process,” she said.

“We need to do a better job to empower them to stand firm.”

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