Animal welfare: the writing’s on the cage

Peter Fricker
Globe and Mail
Publication Date:
April 2, 2007


News that Burger King is going to begin buying eggs and pork from suppliers that do not keep their animals in cages or crates is just the latest in a series of animal welfare bombshells to hit the North American food industry.

Just a few days before Burger King’s announcement, celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck declared that he was banning foie gras, eggs from caged hens and veal raised in crates from his restaurant empire in the United States.

Earlier this year, Maple Leaf Foods, Canada’s largest pork producer, said it would start phasing out sow stalls in its operations. This followed the lead of the U.S.’s largest pork producer, Smithfield Foods, which made the same commitment.

Meanwhile, the University of Guelph, Canada’s premier agricultural institution, has announced that it will not use eggs from caged hens in its campus food facilities – the first Canadian university to do so. (More than 100 U.S. universities and colleges have adopted such policies, along with some big companies like Google.)

Has spring prompted a sudden blossoming of corporate and academic consciences about animal suffering on factory farms? Not quite, but enlightened self-interest is playing a big role. Consumer pressure generated by animal advocacy groups like the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is having a big impact in North American food industry boardrooms. Smarter companies are trying to get ahead of the game. As Steven Grover, a Burger King vice-president, told Associated Press: “We want to be doing things long before they become a concern for consumers. Like a hockey player, we want to be there before the puck gets there.”

Some would say it’s about time food producers and retailers woke up to the animal welfare issue. North America is light years behind Europe in responding to concerns about the humane treatment of farm animals. The European Union, for example, is set to ban all battery cages from poultry farms by 2012 and will cut the time sows spend in stalls from 16 weeks to four weeks by 2013. Several European states have unilaterally banned these systems.

Canada’s food industry has been particularly slow to see the writing on the wall. Loblaw, Canada’s biggest grocer, refuses to label its battery cage eggs as “eggs from caged hens” despite consumer confusion caused by misleading terms such as “natural,” “farm-fresh,” or “vegetarian-fed,” all words that mean nothing in terms of animal welfare.

Canadian agri-business in general has its head firmly planted in the sand when it comes to animal welfare reforms. After a widely publicized expose of appallingly cruel conditions in an Ontario battery egg barn in 2005, producers went into a state of denial. Industry leaders responded by urging farmers to increase security. In one subsequent industry conference, producers invited an FBI counter-terrorism agent to speak on the threat of animal rights terrorism.

The real enemy for intensive agriculture is the scientific evidence backing the issues animal welfare agencies are bringing to public attention. For example, Dr. Ian Duncan, Canada’s foremost poultry scientist, with 40 years in the field, has carried out internationally recognized research proving that hens suffer in battery cages. But egg producers trot out the same tired old public relations spin that cages are for the chickens’ own good (because they’re out of the weather and safe from predators), while ignoring the overwhelmingly negative aspects of the most egregious form of intensive confinement.

While the food industry can ignore scientific evidence in the short-term, they can’t dismiss the consumer attitudes it informs. The availability of research materials on a global scale, via the Internet and other media, make it possible for the average consumer to access the information they need to make ethical choices. People are beginning to mistrust the images of little red barns and happy chickens on packaging. They’re getting wise to marketing and spin. They want to know where their food really comes from and they want it to be as cruelty-free as possible.

Canada’s agri-business should stop defending the indefensible and start looking for the business opportunities that will come with consumer demand for more humane food. They should take a cue from Burger King’s hockey analogy and anticipate where the puck is going to be. Right now, it’s in their own net. And they put it there.