Opinion Editorial

Battery cage ban lacks enforcement tools

Article originally published in the Vancouver Sun.

Ethical Canadian consumers might have been pleased to hear the recent announcement by the National Farm Animal Care Council that the infamous “battery cage” for laying hens is to be phased out.

But while the end of this cruel cage system is welcome, the council’s new codes of practice for hens are far from any guarantee of good animal welfare.

An obvious issue is that egg farmers still have until 2036 before all hens must be out of battery cages. So, for the time being, supermarket shelves will be full of eggs from long-suffering hens that have been crammed into small cages.

By 2036, all hens must be in either cage-free housing or in “enriched” 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 B.C. 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.

But perhaps the most serious shortcoming in the new codes 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.

The codes also list a number of “recommended practices,” which are even less meaningful than code requirements, as they merely “encourage adoption of practices for continual improvement in animal welfare outcomes.” But no one is going to make a farm implement such practices, as the codes state that “…failure to implement them does not imply that acceptable standards of animal care are not met.” In other words, good practice is optional.

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 B.C. SPCA’s or Certified Organic). It’s still the egg industry policing the egg industry, whatever spin is put on it.

So where does this leave the compassionate consumer who cares about animal welfare? For people who buy eggs, the least inhumane choice remains eggs that are certified organic, which are guaranteed to be cage-free and have the highest welfare standards. Consumers who continue to reject eggs from any cage system will send a strong market signal to parts of the egg industry that may be pinning their hopes on developing enriched cages under the new codes.

The most humane choice for consumers is, of course, to eliminate egg purchases altogether and transition to a plant-based diet. This has become a more feasible and popular option, as an increasing number of plant-based protein sources have rendered eggs unnecessary to a healthy diet. Reduced demand for eggs still means not only fewer hens in cages, but also fewer unwanted male chicks destroyed (by an industry that needs only hens) and fewer “spent hens” being shipped off to slaughter at the end of their lives.

While the end of the battery cage is a welcome victory for those who have long condemned its obvious cruelty, it’s not yet an end to the animal suffering inherent in the egg industry.