The impact isn’t known yet, but Egg Farmers of Alberta isn’t pleased with McDonald’s Canada’s decision to switch to free-run eggs over the next 10 years.
“From my perspective, I was a bit disappointed that they’ve chosen to go cage free, knowing the inherent benefits of the enriched housing system,” said David Webb, the organization’s marketing and communications manager. “I think (enriched housing) addresses a lot of the concerns people had with conventional housing in terms of animal welfare.”
The Egg Farmers had no advance warning of the announcement, and didn’t have an exact number of Albertan farms that sell to Burnbrae Farms, McDonald’s supplier. But fewer than five per cent of egg sales in Alberta are from cage-free operations.
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While many consumers favour cage-free systems, mortality rates are often in the double digits while enriched housing and caged housing have a two per cent mortality rate.
An American group called the Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply recently conducted a study on conventional, enriched, and aviary housing systems. The study said each system has its pros and cons, but while free range and free run score high for animal welfare, they come with increased costs, a bigger environmental footprint, and increased mortality.
“Some of the issues we do see with the loose housing system are things like the air quality in the system is not as good, because the birds have access to their litter, scratch and dust bathe and this brings particulate up into the air which can affect the air quality in the system,” said Christina Robinson, producer services manager with the Egg Farmers.
“I understand the move away from conventional systems, which we’re encouraging our producers to do, but to go completely cage free was a bit of a surprise,” added Webb. “We haven’t been pushing cage free because furnished or enriched housing has a lot of advantages. Our approach has been to try and find the best solution to balance all the different factors like food safety and environmental impact.”
In 2013, the organization passed a policy to move away from conventional housing, and new conventional barns haven’t been allowed since Dec. 31, 2014.
Eighteen per cent of Alberta egg producers have moved away from conventional housing. Many chose furnished housing, which doesn’t meet McDonald’s cage-free criteria.
It generally costs about 30 per cent more for an alternative housing system because of the extra space and equipment required. But it comes down to a farm’s specific situation. Some might be able to retrofit an existing barn, while others might need to build a new one even though their current barn hasn’t reached the usual 20- to 25-year lifespan.
“The important thing is that systems that are existing need to be able to live out their intended lifespan in order to make it a feasible transition,” said Robinson. “If they are making a change with their barn now, then it’s not such a big deal. But if they had to transition an existing barn earlier than expected, that would be a significant impact for producers.”
But the transition period is lengthy, said Margaret Hudson, president of Burnbrae Farms.
“We have 10 years to do that — we feel like we’ve got a sufficient amount of time to make that transition happen,” she said.
“As barns need to be renovated or replaced, we have a conversation with the egg producer when that happens. We have hundreds of egg producers who are part of the system. Producers who decide to be free run will be part of the McDonald’s system.”
Hudson said that it does cost a lot of money to replace a hen barn, but the whole process is doable.
“Clearly consumers have spoken and McDonald’s has decided this is the way it wants to go with its egg production and we’re just really excited to be part of this and help make all of this happen,” she said.
McDonald’s Canada announced the changes in conjunction with its U.S parent. Five per cent of McDonald’s Canada eggs will be free run by the end of September, and that will expand to 10 per cent by the end of 2016. McDonald’s Canada purchases about 120 million eggs a year for its breakfast menu.
Housing options for egg layers
Conventional: The traditional battery cage provides birds with 67 square inches of space.
Enriched (or furnished) housing: Cages have a nesting box and a perch that allow birds to engage in natural behaviours. Each cage is 116.25 square inches.
Aviary housing: Birds run loose in the barn, can move to different levels, and have nests and feeders. Alberta was the first province to have this type of barn when Rockport Colony built one in 2008.
Free run: The birds are inside a barn and are loose. Generally, the birds are all on one level.
Free range: Similar to free run, but birds also have access to the outside. This system is required for organic certification.