“This has nothing to do with appeasing the activists. It’s to take us off their radar screen.”
Manitoba Egg Producers
Manitoba egg producers have taken a major step toward alternative housing for hens by introducing new animal-welfare standards for layer barns.
The new policy will eventually mean the phasing out of battery cages, currently the industry standard for housing layer hens.
Beginning in 2018, new layer barns in the province must have facilities that support the so-called “Five Freedoms” for farm animals, which were introduced in Europe in the mid-1960s and have since become a standard used by animal-welfare groups to demand changes in livestock housing.
They include: freedom from thirst, hunger and malnutrition; freedom from discomfort; freedom from pain, injury and disease; freedom to express normal behaviour; freedom from fear and distress.
It will mean that if producers choose to install a cage system to house their hens after 2018, they will have to use so-called “enriched cages” that allow hens to express natural behaviours such as nesting, roosting and scratching.
Existing operations will not have to meet the new requirements until they undergo a major renovation.
Manitoba Egg Farmers introduced the policy at its annual meeting in Winnipeg March 10.
MEF officials said producers must control their destiny by adapting to alternate housing systems before animal-welfare groups and public pressure force it on them.
But some at the meeting questioned the need.
“I don’t believe my hens right now are depleted of any of these freedoms,” said Tim Ruby, a producer from Steinbach. “And if they were, I would fix it myself.”
Ruby said it was pointless to try to satisfy animal-welfare activists, arguing they are out to abolish the commercial production of chickens, not to improve their comfort.
“These people are people you will never, never, never satisfy.”
Penny Kelly, MEF general manager, disagreed.
“This has nothing to do with appeasing the activists,” she said. “It’s to take us off their radar screen.”
Battery cages, which are being phased out in Europe, are coming under increasing pressure in North America. A recent example is Proposition 2, a voter initiative in California to ban confinement rearing for farm animals, including layer hens, by 2015. Voters in other U. S. states have passed similar measures. Several major U. S. fast-food chains require humane welfare standards for meat animals from their suppliers.
Kurt Siemens, a MEF director, said the marketing board is being proactive. “We don’t want governments and retailers telling us what to do.”
Siemens said while he agrees producers are already doing a good job delivering good care for their birds, new research is indicating they are falling short in one area.
“The only one we are missing is the behavioural part of it,” he said. “This is the scientific standard that is coming forward now.”
Siemens said birds have a natural tendency to perch and nest. “Enriched cages can provide those two things,” he said.
Paul Born, a Kleefeld producer, noted enriched cages are more expensive than conventional ones and wondered how farmers would recapture the cost.
Siemens said farmers will initially carry the cost. But over time, the cost-of-production formula, which determines producer prices, would start to reflect those costs. As more producers implement enriched cages, the surveys of producers used to determine the cost-of-production formula will gradually start to reflect higher capital costs incurred, he said.
Manitoba’s new policy caught Canada’s other egg-producing provinces by surprise.
Manitoba did not consult with other members of Egg Farmers of Canada before announcing its policy, said Laurent Souligny, the national agency’s chairman.
“I have no idea why they went about it this way,” Souligny said.
Some producers wondered why Manitoba is unilaterally switching to alternate hen housing instead of waiting for a national policy.
“It is something that we will need to discuss here at EFC with the other provincial boards,” Souligny said.
Kelly said MEF feels a national approach would take too long and “we can’t afford to drag behind.”
Bruce Vincent, guest speaker at the MEF meeting, applauded producers for their initiative.
It’s an example of producers defending their “social licence” by taking control of the animal welfare agenda, said Vincent, a third-generation logger from Libby, Montana and a motivational speaker on resource issues.
“Leading is the only way you’re going to defend your industry,” Vincent told the meeting in a keynote address.