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  • Maurice Doyon

Is it toothpaste out of the tube for enriched cages?

In February 2016, Egg Farmers of Canada announced that they were gradually phasing out conventional cage production systems. This makes sense, since large retailers[1] have recently indicated their intention to increase cage free eggs offering to eventually only selling these types of eggs. More importantly, big fast food companies such as Burger King, McDonald, Tim Horton and Cara Foods (Harvey’s, East Side Mario’s, Swiss Chalet, St-Hubert) are committed to using only cage free eggs by 2020 to 2025.

Egg Farmers of Canada have not made the decision of banning all types of cages, but only battery cages. Why is that? Because science is increasingly showing that enhanced cages are the best system for hens’ welfare. The enhanced housing system differs from battery cages by offering hens more space, allowing them to stretch their wings and move. These cages also include a nesting area, a perch and a scratching pad. This allows them to replicate some basic behaviours, but without the stress of potentially being pecked by several hundreds of hens. Mortality, cannibalism and injuries have been shown to be much less common in enhanced housing system when compared to the cage free system.

Then why are big companies moving to cage free? Because it seems that this is what consumers want. In fact, consumers are blinded by the word cage according to a recent study lead by a team of researchers from the Egg Industry Economic Research Chair at Laval University. The team found that when presenting consumers with fictive names of housing system created by the researchers, with no other information, the three names out of twelves containing the word cage were by far the ones considered as the least likely to promote hen welfare.

On the other hand, the researchers also found that when consumer were provided additional information on the enriched cage system, they showed increased preference for these eggs relative to regular eggs. Furthermore, the research suggests that consumers especially value the inclusion of nesting box and perch.

In light of this information, it appears that under competitive pressures to please and attract consumers, large retailers and especially fast food chains are pushing farmers to move to cage free housing systems, although it might not be in the best interest of hens.

Are consumers being taking for a ride by big corporation? I would think so given that the alternative, enhanced housing system, has not been discussed and explained much. Moreover, cage free eggs are more expansive than enhanced eggs, the extra cost will eventually come from the consumers’ pocket. This might seem like nonsense, more expensive and not the best solution from an animal welfare point of view.

Should someone tell consumers, inform and educate them on the subject? Some think not, as I was recently told by a senior lecturer of the Harvard Business School that if one believes that consumers need to be educated to make what one think is a better choices, then that person is on a tricky path to paternalism.

I sometimes wonder if consumers are truly kings of their decisions. Especially when watching the many patrons at my local fast food joint, reading the headline of daily paper on epidemic level of obesity and type 2 diabetes while mindlessly sipping their morning coffee, with on the side, their soon to be cage free egg sandwich.

This blog reflects solely the opinion of the author

[1] Fresh Market all cage free, Loblaw, Walmart, Costco and trader Joe’s will or have their private label cage free and want all eggs to be cage free by 2025, Sobeys and Metro have made similar commitment, while Whole Food is already 100% cage free.

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