The life of 90 per cent of egg-laying hens in Canada is nasty, brutish and short.
They are confined to what are known as “battery” cages, four, five or six to a cage, giving each less than the space of single sheet of letter-sized paper to live their entire lives.
They cannot spread their wings, nest, perch, forage or dust bathe. Their beak tips may be cut off to prevent them from pecking each other. Their muscles and bones deteriorate because they can hardly move. Their bones can then break, leaving them immobilized so they starve to death — a condition euphemistically referred to in the industry as cage fatigue. They are only released from their cages after one or two years (half their normal lifespan), when they are being sent to the slaughter house.
The good news for these poor creatures? On Friday the Egg Farmers of Canada announced farmers will stop using battery cages. The bad news? They’ve given themselves until 2036 to make the transition to other options such as “enriched” larger cages with perches and nesting boxes, and cage-free options such as free-run (in barns) or free-range (outdoors).
That puts the Canadian farmers well behind the European Union, which back in 1999 ordered a ban on battery cages that took effect in 2012. They are also lagging at least two U.S. states which have already outlawed battery cages; other states are also working towards bans.
Understandably, Canada’s egg farmers say they need the time to transition their costly equipment and barns to a new system. And their organization says that 50 per cent of the restructuring will come within eight years.
Still, 20 years is far longer than it took the EU to implement its ban, and Canada’s egg farmers must have seen this coming since at least 1999. Indeed, the farmers might be missing an important point by taking so long to implement a ban: consumer and corporate Canada’s inability to stomach battery cages.
Restaurants such as McDonald’s, Tim Hortons and Burger King have pledged to move much more quickly toward cage-free eggs. Grocery chains are making the move, too. Whole Foods, for example, has already banned the sale of eggs from caged hens.
Canada’s egg farmers are right to bring in a ban on battery cages. But 20 years is an unconscionably long time to implement it. They should move faster, at the very least matching the EU’s phase-out period. For the hens — and consumers outraged by the practice — a ban can’t come soon enough.