By 2036, Canada will no longer house laying hens in conventional cages. Instead, farmers will be required to keep their birds in fully enriched housing systems, which grant the hens additional space for normal behaviors, or in cage-free environments. The mandatory shift will be overseen by the Egg Farmers of Canada, the national egg production organization, in cooperation with the country’s provincial egg boards.
In an interview, Roger Pelissero, the first vice chair of the nonprofit organization that manages the country’s supply of eggs, said as much as 65 percent of the country’s hens will be housed in non-conventional housing within the next eight years. He said the transition is possible because Canadian farmers are embracing the unified direction and because of the country’s system for managing the price and supply of some agrarian commodities: the supply management system.
The supply management system, a national program created in 1965, dictates the price Canadian farmers are paid for their products based on the costs of production. Dairy, table eggs, broiler hatching eggs, chicken and turkey are subject to the supply management system. Grain, cattle and hogs are not.
Supply management includes production controls, pricing controls and import controls. Pelissero, an egg farmer from Ontario, explained the system allows egg producers to receive a “fair” price for their goods. It also allows producers to coordinate quotas of how many eggs they produce in order to prevent an over- or under-supply of the commodity. If those quotas are not met, then the country can import eggs from elsewhere. Canada is a major agrarian exporter of grains, such as wheat, canola and soy, cattle and swine. It is not a major exporter of commodities included in the supply management system.
Moving out of conventional cages will increase the price consumers pay for eggs, but not by much, according to Pelissero. He expects the price of eggs to increase by about 7 cents per dozen. In the current formula used to set the price of eggs, housing costs are worth about 3 cents per dozen.
The system, which is administered by the provinces, provincial egg producer organizations and, in some regions, the national government, will play a large role in management of the transition. Because egg farmers have their costs of production calculated into the price of their products, costs for livestock housing are reimbursed directly by consumers. Typically, the cost of housing systems is reimbursed in 15 years, Pelissero said.
Provincial egg boards will be charged with ensuring the transition occurs on schedule. Those who monitor the egg farms have records on when new systems and houses were constructed, and they will be able to tell when a farmer is due to make the switch. Ideally, the farmers will be given a timeline for how soon they are expected to stop using conventional housing. If the change is not made, the administrators can block a farmer from producing more eggs. Pelissero said he doubts farmers will balk at the move out of conventional cages.
“We expect full cooperation. In fact, in Ontario, the province I represent at the national table, farmers have embraced this,” Pelissero said. “They are saying, ‘We’re happy now, we know how we can move forward regarding producing eggs in Canada.’ We always base our decisions on what’s best for our hens and what’s a good affordable egg that we can produce for consumers.”
The shift will not make the Canadian egg industry entirely cage free, Pelissero said. It asks farmers to house their laying hens in fully enriched housing or other alternative housing: meaning housing that includes a nest box, perches, scratch pads and a minimum distance of 116.25 square inches of floor space per hen.
He said the decision to go with fully enriched is based on research conducted as part of the Coalition for a Sustainable Egg Supply’s 2015 report on the sustainability of conventional and enriched cages as well as an aviary system at a commercial-scale egg farm in Iowa. Canada’s egg farmers are given some freedom because there is not yet a conclusion on which form of non-conventional housing is the best for hens, farmers and consumers.
“When you take a look at that research, there is no one housing system that is perfect. And at the end of the day, when we weigh off the negatives and the positives not only for our hens but for our families and members of who we employ working in these facilities, we feel the best system to produce eggs, and for food affordability, is the enriched housing system,” Pelissero said.
About 90 percent of Canada’s eggs come from hens living in conventional cages. On February 4, 2016, the country’s egg farmers agreed to stop adding more conventional housing. Pelissero said 85 percent of Canada’s hens will be in enriched housing by 2031. The entire egg industry is expected to make the transition by 2036.
Moving toward enriched cages raises the question of how the Canadian egg industry can answer growing demand for cage-free eggs. Pelissero said the industry will meet the demand for cage-free eggs, but the cage-free demand created by companies like McDonalds only purchasing cage-free eggs in the future will account for less than 7 percent of the egg industry’s market. He said the majority of the nation’s production is for the Canadian consumer, who is happy with the responsibly raised, affordable eggs Canada is producing.
“We have cage-free production in Canada and it will continue to increase,” Pelissero said. “This is why 20 years to transition will allow us to match production with demand. It’s all about choices and we will make sure that we will continue to allow for choice.”