Anne Hui, National Food Reporter, Chilliwack, B.C., Globe and Mail, Globe Focus section
April 30, 2016
McDonald’s announced in September 2015 that it uses 120 million eggs to make Egg McMuffins and other breakfast items and it is aiming to obtain their eggs exclusively from hens which have not been kept in cages. Both its competitors and McDonald’s employees were surprised; but this announcement has caused almost every North American fast food chain to also pledge to go cage-free. The reason for the change from “battery cage” egg production to bigger and nicer furnished cages seems to be public pressure and opinion, enhanced by social media and the internet. Animal rights groups and activists “have gained unprecedented influence in shaping people’s perceptions and decisions about what to eat”, causing the food industry to take notice. A & W Canada, which was subjected to an extensive campaign, has said it will move away from cages of any kind, no matter their size or furnishings.
McDonald’s did not make their decision regarding the eggs used in their breakfast products without consulting its Animal Welfare Council and specifically the poultry experts. Ms. Hui continues: “Now, more than ever, what customers are expecting is for giant food companies like McDonald’s to take steps to ensure the humane treatment of animals.” She adds that the rise of social media and the cell phone camera has allowed activist groups to record undercover images of animal abuse and distribute these images. Companies that have tolerated animal abuse have suffered consequences such as boycotts of their products and being dropped by major buyers.
Ms. Hui writes that the egg industry, especially, has felt the heat, with emphasis on its practice of housing chickens in wire battery cages. Activists have broadcasted images of the terrible living conditions and the physical condition of the birds. McDonald’s has been particularly singled out for censure by a campaign against its battery-cage housing, the Canadian outcry being joined by celebrities like Ryan Gosling and Bryan Adams, and supported with a petition with 120,000 signatures.
Referring to a Vancouver-based restaurant chain, Earl’s, and its recent announcement that it is moving to using “certified humane” beef, Ms. Hui states: “In some cases, the food industry’s attempts to address concerns have led to awkward or mixed results.” The decision by Earl’s means that they will no longer source meat from Alberta farmers. “Social media lit up with calls for a boycott (of Earl’s).” The result of such criticisms is that many companies have turned to animal experts to help them understand animal welfare better. Issues such as “what motivates animals; what behaviours come naturally to them; and what causes them fear, stress or pain” are examined. Ms. Hui adds: “Above all, the scientists have tried to help the companies distinguish between feelings – the visceral, emotional response that the public has to animals – and the facts. But in the move toward cage-free eggs, feelings appear to trump the facts.”
Dr. Temple Grandin, a prominent and influential expert on animal welfare, referring to the lack of knowledge about food production, has stated: “This lack of knowledge —- is exploited by all those who have a stake in telling people how to eat – producers, companies and activists alike. And instead of getting their information from credible sources, people increasingly make snap judgments based on information from the internet, images from social media – and their emotions.” Public pressure, however, caused McDonald’s to now require its suppliers to undergo regular third-party audits of how they treat animals. McDonald’s also helped finance a 2010-2013 groundbreaking study on hen housing through the Coalition of Sustainable Egg Supply. Eighteen leading researchers from several American universities and the Department of Agriculture compared the three most-used chicken housing systems – standard battery cages, furnished or enriched cages and cage-free (free run). Furnished cages have about twice the space as battery cages and have separate areas for nesting and perching. Cage-free means that are loose in an open barn; but only allowed outside when the weather cooperates. The systems were rated on food safety, animal health and well being, environment, worker health and safety and food affordability. Ms. Hui: “The results present a much more complicated picture than the simple idea that cage-free is always better.” For example, the downside to “cage-free” is that the birds are free to get hurt or get into trouble. However, the cage-free environment provides the most benefits. Yet, contrary to popular opinion, “— it (cage-free) also has the greatest negative impact in all the above categories.”
The study referred to above also raised concerns about hygiene, air quality and health of both hens and workers. Ms. Hui continues: “With cages, manure drops through the wire floor, collected safely away from both the bird and the eggs. But when the birds are free to roam, it can be difficult to control where the eggs and manure end up.” The dust level in the cage-free environment is eight to ten times higher than that of caged systems. “In most categories, problems with furnished cages were less severe than they were with either battery or cage-free systems.”
Under the heading “A chicken’s nature”, Ms. Hui refers to various experts with respect to chickens and their traits and concludes: “Some researchers consider the animals’ health and production the main indicators. Others focus on the stress, pain or fear they may experience. Still other researchers argue that, above all else, animals must be free to express natural behaviours. Science can measure such factors as animal health or natural behaviours; but choosing which is more important is an ethical decision – not a scientific one.
Ms. Hui says that customers who are confused with the labeling of eggs or the costs of different types of eggs have good reason to be. Some of the terms, such as “all natural” and “farm fresh” have little or no
meaning. Others such as “free range” do have meaning (the birds have at least some access to the outdoors). Critics say that, unless the egg is certified organic, there is little official oversight. Even the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, responsible for food labeling, does not have clear definitions of what “free run” and “free range” should mean, making enforcement problematic. The Agency advises that, ultimately, the consumer is relying on the integrity of whoever packaged the product.
Ms. Hui refers to the opinions of Dr. Temple Grandin under the heading “A free-range future?” Dr. Grandin, alluding to the initiative by McDonald’s of a ten-year deadline for cage-free eggs, is optimistic about the deadline being met. She thinks that the obstacles to this goal are solvable. She explains that issues such as bone fractures can be partly addressed through genetics and design. Others may require producers to compromise by reducing crowding. She draws the line, however, at the entire industry going free-range. “I don’t think we can put every chicken outside. I don’t think that is feasible!”
Ms. Hui has authored an article that appears in the Globe and Mail at the same time as that summarized above and entitled “Eggs done two ways”. She describes how veteran farmers provide a bird’s eye view of furnished cages vs. Free range. She describes the conditions at the farm of Rob Martens of Chilliwack, B.C., indicating that he runs a serious egg-producing business supplying businesses like Costco. His operation is “free-range” and he is proud of how his hens live. In good weather the hens are allowed to roam in the field. But, Ms. Hui adds, Mr. Marten’s decision to go “cage-free” has little to do with animal welfare and because the farm was available. He calls “cage-free” the trend of the day; but he doubts the entire industry will switch. Ms. Hui states that ninety percent of the eggs Canadians consume come from battery-cage hens.
Ms. Hui concludes by describing a different egg-production environment in the Niagara Region, where |Roger Pelissero’s hens are housed in furnished cages in an enormous machine “which they saw as a compromise between the economic benefits of battery and the best interests of animal welfare.” The operation of this farm is very automated. With respect to animal welfare, Mr. Pelissero advises that about 95% of his birds produce eggs every day. “If my production is high, (the hens) are happy. If they are stressed out, production is low.”