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Science suggests that cage-free eggs may not be the best welfare system for hens on Canadian egg farms. Photo by Richelle Peace

The future is bright for the hens that work in the restaurant business. Tim Hortons and Burger King restaurants will now be serving cage-free eggs at their locations in Canada, Mexico and the U.S. by the year 2025.

Margherita Vittorelli, marketing coordinator of the Saskatchewan Egg Producers explained cage-free is a term to describe two different housing systems for hens: free-range and free-run. Hens that are considered free-range are ones that “are free. They're not in cages. They're free to express natural behaviours. So they can spread their wings, dust, scratch, they can lay their eggs in nests in private and they can have access to the outdoors. Free-run hens have all of the same components except access to the outdoors,” said Vittorelli.

When companies like Tim Hortons, Burger King and now other restaurants used the term “cage-free” eggs some consumers think that this is a good thing.

However, there have been studies conducted by researchers in the animal and poultry science department at the University of Saskatchewan that suggest that there are advantages to all forms of welfare for hens.

Karen Schwean-Lardner, a U of S poultry welfare researcher said there are four types of housing for hens, including conventional and enriched cages, as well as free-run and free-range systems.

Schwean-Lardner said that science is pointing to enriched cages which include perches and nest boxes, as being a better welfare system for most hens than any other system. “People see this beautiful picture of birds outside and think that it’s a perfect system. It’s really not. There are a number of potential issues, (for example), higher bird mortality, higher stress levels, all kinds of things that indicate maybe (free-range) isn’t the best system,” she said.

Another report by Joseph Stookey at the U of S states that although hens can be confined to such small spaces in cages at some farms, the practice brings great economic return and profit. “Birds kept in free-run systems have been especially prone to cannibalism. Attempts to recreate and study the phenomenon have been problematic. There may (also) be a genetic predisposition and if this is true, it may prove to be a valuable key if it can be controlled via genetic selection. In the end we need more research on the problem,” he wrote.

“Many consumers assume that free-range and free-run are better for hen welfare but that's not what academic research is pointing at. What they’re pointing at is that every system have different benefits and it’s very hard to be able to tell (which) system is the best for the hens,” said Vittorelli.

The nine-year time frame appears to be a long deadline, but it will take longer than just a few months to implement this change. It is unclear if the quality of life will in fact become better for the hens once they are removed from their cages, whatever the dimensions may be, the researchers say.

Both Burger King and Tim Hortons are part of the fast food restaurant company Restaurant Brands International Inc. On RBI’s website a post stated that animal welfare is important to the company and that RBI will continue engaging with their partners at The Humane Society of the U.S. and Humane Society International to better understand any issues of animal welfare. Later in 2016, RBI will release an update on the company’s progress on animal welfare. 

Whatever the case, Canadian egg farms are destined to change. The Code of Practice Committee plans to implement a new code of practice with some regulatory changes at egg farms concerning the welfare of hens whether they are caged, free-run, or free-range. Now with restaurants promising to buy cage-free eggs, changes are even closer on the horizon.