Egg producers question feasibility of free-run

Consumers pressure restaurants and food companies to make the practice mandatory, but who will pay the extra costs?

A steady stream of restaurant and food companies proclaim intentions to use eggs only from free-run operations in the future, but egg producers wonder who is willing to pay the cost of more expensive production methods.

Some barns have already moved to systems with enriched housing, defined as larger cages with nesting areas, dust baths and room for each chicken to spread its wings and generally express normal behaviour.

However, the benefits of that system seem to have been overlooked by food companies and the consumer groups they say have lobbied for free run housing.

“There may have been activist pressures on the retailers, which forced them in a direction,” said Egg Farmers of Alberta chair Beatrice Visser.

“We don’t always know where people have gotten their ideas.”

Recent cost-of-production data for Canadian egg producers shows it is an average $1.93 per dozen for eggs produced from chickens in conventional cages. That cost rises to $2.10 per dozen for eggs from chickens in enriched housing, but figures aren’t available for costs on free-run.

Egg Farmers of Canada director Joe Kleinsasser said he has doubts about a major transition to free-run housing.

“I myself can’t see that happening,” he said.

“For one, it’s a tougher barn to manage. It takes more time to manage.”

It would also be more expensive, and even the transition to enriched housing presents higher costs that are prohibitive for some. Kleinsasser favours the latter method.

“The birds that are in an enriched system, they have 116 sq. inches. There’s a nest box in there. There’s perches in there. There’s a scratch pad in there,” he said.

“To build a facility to house the same amount of birds costs at least 40 if not 45 percent more than a conventional system.”

The Canadian Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Pullets and Laying Hens, updated in 2017, notes the welfare trade-offs among different housing systems.

“Hens raised in non-cage systems generally have greater freedom of movement and have more opportunity to engage in natural behaviours than cage-housed birds. However, non-cage systems need to be carefully managed to limit risks of disease, injuries, injurious pecking and mortality,” the code reads.

“Enriched cages generally maintain the health and hygiene benefits associated with conventional cages while providing amenities that allow hens to nest and perch and space to move around and stretch wings.

“However, while existing enriched cages offer some opportunity for foraging and dust bathing, they do not fully support that behaviour.”

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