Conditions for egg-laying hens in Canada are changing but the truly humane choice consumers can make is to avoid eggs altogether.
The long campaign against battery cages
Right now in Canada most eggs are still produced by hens living in battery cages, which scientific studies have shown to be cruel – infamously so crowded and small they deny birds the ability to even flap a wing.
Over the past two decades VHS and other animal advocacy groups campaigned hard to put an end to battery cages. Our ChickenOUT! campaign educated thousands of consumers and helped B.C. to become the province with the highest percentage of cage-free eggs in Canada. We persuaded many post-secondary institutions’ food facilities across Canada to go cage-free and were instrumental in convincing A&W Restaurants to do the same.
The campaigns here and around the world had an effect, with many retailers curtailing the sale of eggs from caged hens. In 2016, the Egg Farmers of Canada announced its members would not install any new battery cages and began an industry-wide transition to alternative production methods for its egg-producing hens, to be completed by 2036. In 2017, this transition was confirmed in a new National Farm Animal Care Council Code of Practice for laying hens, which also set improved standards for hens in cage-free housing systems.
The fight isn’t over
VHS is disappointed in the long timeline for change and also in the code’s acceptance of “enriched cages” as an alternative to battery cages.
Enriched cages, while bigger than battery cages, still restrict natural behaviours like running, full wing-flapping and flying, and do not permit unrestrained perching and dust-bathing. Even in an enriched cage system that meets the new code requirements, many of the welfare problems inherent in battery cages remain. In short, a cage is a cage. That is why an enriched cage would still not meet the standards required by the BC SPCA Certified Program, a third-party animal welfare certification system. Farmers who do opt for enriched caging will be committing to a major investment, guaranteeing these cages will continue to compromise animal welfare for decades. Bottom line: Cages are cruel.
Another serious shortcoming in the new code relates to inspection and enforcement. The National Farm Animal Care Council itself defines the codes of practice as “nationally developed guidelines” for the care and handling of farm animals. Guidelines are not regulations or laws. The codes refer to “requirements” that farmers “may” be compelled by industry associations to comply with and these requirements “may” be enforceable under federal and provincial legislation.
In fact, no independent, third-party body inspects egg farms to ensure the requirements under the codes are being met (unless they have signed up to a separate certification program like the BC SPCA’s or Certified Organic). It’s still the egg industry policing the egg industry.
• Most eggs in Canada are still from hens kept in cruel battery cages
• Battery cages phased out by 2036
• Enriched cages still allowed, even though not significantly more humane than battery cages
• There is no independent, third-party enforcement of animal welfare on most egg farms
Several egg production methods are covered by the term “cage-free” and have differing standards. Without third-party auditing and certification, labels cannot guarantee these standards are met.
Labels can be misleading: “vegetarian fed” or “farm fresh” are meaningless in terms of animal welfare. Certified Organic and BC SPCA certified have audited welfare standards.
Hens are kept in barns and have no access to the outdoors. Some litter is provided for scratching and dust-bathing. The 2017 code of practice for cage-free systems improved space requirements for cage-free systems, up to four times as much as battery cages, and also requires more perches and nesting space.
Generally speaking, free-range eggs come from hens who have some access to the outside, depending on the weather. The 2017 code of practice for cage-free systems improved space requirements for cage-free systems, up to four times as much as battery cages, and also requires more perches and nesting space.
Certified Organic (free-range)
All certified organic eggs come from chickens who have access to an outdoor, organic pasture (e.g. no pesticides or herbicides). They are fed vegetarian, non-gmo feed and are not fed antibiotics or hormones. Research conducted by the Vancouver Humane Society has determined that the systems with the highest welfare standards currently operating in Canada are those monitored by provincial organic certifying associations. In B.C., the organization is known as the Certified Organic Association of BC (COABC). Nationally, the program is known as the Canadian Organic Standards (COS). Eggs certified by these organizations are produced in systems with higher welfare standards.
BC SPCA Certified (free-range and free-run)
All egg-laying hens must be housed cage-free with enough space to allow them to spread their wings freely. Enrichment is provided to allow the hens to perform important natural behaviours, like dust bathing, preening (feather cleaning), perching, scratching and foraging for food. Beak trimming is prohibited.
• Cage-free systems can provide better welfare for hens but labels such as free-range and free-run cannot guarantee higher standards are met.
• Egg labels indicating auditing by a certification program, such as BC SPCA certified or Certified Organic offer a guarantee of higher welfare standards.
Is cage-free humane?
Even though cage‐free hens are not kept in cages, it does not mean that this form of egg production is humane. When egg production declines, typically after their first year – all hens are sent to slaughter and used for human consumption or for animal feed, or they may be killed on-farm and used for compost. As well, even most cage-free hens have been de-beaked. Furthermore, since male chicks are of no use to the egg industry, they are ground up alive by a macerating machine shortly after they hatch.
What should compassionate consumers do?
Because of the inherent animal welfare issues involved in all forms of egg production, the most humane action consumers can take is to avoid buying eggs, whatever their source.
For those consumers who choose to continue buying eggs, the least inhumane option is to buy cage-free eggs that are certified free-range by an independent auditing body such as Certified Organic or BC SPCA certified. Eliminating or reducing your egg consumption is now much easier than in the past, with more egg-free, plant-based recipes and products available than ever before.
How to replace eggs in your diet
Here are some resources to help in reducing or eliminating eggs from your diet
Replacing eggs in baking
Common egg substitutes and eggless recipes
Cooking without eggs
Homemade vegan mayonnaise recipe
Egg replacer products (Via Vegan Supply in Vancouver)
Aquafaba egg replacement