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Linda Modern Thai’s Eggs Benedict - Panang curry Hollandaise over smoked duck, free-run eggs, and butter brioche (Signe Langford for The Globe and Mail)
Linda Modern Thai’s Eggs Benedict - Panang curry Hollandaise over smoked duck, free-run eggs, and butter brioche (Signe Langford for The Globe and Mail)

Free-range eggs: Chefs are starting to choose animal welfare and taste over price Add to ...

The average Canadian eats about 250 eggs annually, yet this ubiquitous ingredient has never generated the buzz that surrounds pork (remember the Berkshire craze?) or beef (Angus, grass-fed, Kobe). The typical diner is more concerned with the runniness of the yolk than the provenance of the egg. In the restaurant industry, where profit margins are slim and food costs are kept as low as possible without noticeably affecting taste, the egg – generally a bit player on the dinner menu – is given little consideration.

But that’s changing.

In Canada and the United States, a number of corporate chains – Wendy’s, Krispy Kreme, Subway, to name a few – have committed to cage-free eggs. In this climate of local and sustainable, it’s good PR. Many restaurants – fast-food to fine dining – universities and colleges, grocery chains and workplaces are also making the switch, including Hyatt Hotels, Fairmont and Virgin America airlines Google’s corporate dining facilities go through 300,000 shell-on and 7,000 gallons of cage-free liquid eggs annually. Both Hellmann’s (Unilever) and Loblaw Companies have committed to increase the number of brands using cage-free.

Kevin Groh, vice-president of corporate affairs and communication at Loblaw, says that “President’s Choice was Canada’s first to go free-run nationwide, and remains the only Canadian brand to commit to converting fully. …That was in part on the basis of perceived concern for hen welfare and as a test of consumer uptake, particularly in the organic category. Our free-run eggs continue to grow in popularity and we are expanding our lines, as we know the issue of animal welfare is an important one for many Canadians. Ultimately, we want to provide customers with choices that fit their standards, tastes and sensibilities.”

In Vancouver, more than 80 food-service outlets have self-reported to the Vancouver Humane Society as serving free-run eggs. For Alex Chen, executive chef of Boulevard Kitchen and Oyster Bar, the decision was an easy one. “There really is no comparison. Free-range eggs are far superior in quality and flavour, as well as the aesthetic – the bold orange yolk of a free-range egg looks incredible.”

Evelyn Wu of Borealia, a Toronto restaurant rooted in historic Canadian cuisine, also uses only free-run eggs: “These eggs have a richer yolk, a firmer white and just a greater depth of flavour.”

And it’s not just trendy urban restaurants that are embracing the happy-hen ethos. It’s happening in the countryside, too, though precise numbers are difficult to confirm since there is no single organization keeping track, and restaurants in rural areas may simply get their eggs from a nearby farm. Chef Jason Bangerter of Langdon Hall, a country inn in Cambridge, Ont., buys pasture-raised, heritage eggs – blue, green, brown and speckled – from nearby Murray’s Farm. “I want to serve the best possible products, sustainable and responsible, whether it’s salmon, carrots or eggs … and you can’t beat the taste or freshness.”

Darren Vanstone, corporate engagement manager with World Animal Protection Canada, which launched the Choose Cage-Free campaign in 2012, says the relationship between chefs and farmers is a powerful driver of the free-run egg trend. “Chefs want to tell the story of their food to the diner, and a factory farm isn’t the sort of story they want to tell.” Increasingly, it’s not the story diners want to hear.

Vanstone believes any sweeping infrastructure changes will be driven by consumer demand. “Farmers produce the way they produce because of consistent direction from the consumer – their customers.”

But according to Alison Evans, director of corporate and public affairs for the Egg Farmers of Canada, consumers when surveyed rate their concern for animal welfare well below those of price and food safety. “The average consumer doesn’t want to pay even a few extra cents for free-range eggs.” And while she does see that consumer demand for specialty eggs – organic, free-run, omega – is on the rise, it still only represents a small sector of a billion-dollar business. Current estimates from her organization suggest less than 10 per cent of member producers house hens in free-run, aviary or free-range systems, which translates to 3 per cent of Canada’s total egg production.

This might be a case of supply not being able to meet demand. The restaurant industry can only move as quickly as the supply chain will allow. Chef Donna Dooher, Restaurants Canada interim president and CEO and owner of Mildred’s Temple Kitchen in Toronto, explains: “The [egg] quota system was created 40 years ago and it needs to change.” These are very different times, we need a new business model.” According to Evans, a mere 5 per cent of eggs are produced outside the quota system.

Quota is essentially an operating licence for each hen. In Ontario, there is a “small-flock exemption” of 100 laying hens. To grow beyond that, a farmer must buy quota from another farmer who’s willing to sell for $250 to $300 each if they can find any for sale. This means the big producers with deeper pockets can monopolize production, forcing specialty farmers out of business, and it’s this quota system (in Ontario) that makes the egg industry a lumbering dinosaur, struggling to keep up with changing timesand current trends. It’s one of the main reasons more of the food scene’s big players can’t switch to cage-free – they need a consistent and huge number of eggs – whereas smaller, more agile restaurants have the flexibility to work with gaps in the supply.

Vanstone explains how the quota system gets in the way. “In Ontario, it is very difficult for new entrants; there has not been a major release of new quota in a long while. For the past 10 years, British Columbia has allocated a percentage of quota to specialty egg production – in 2013, free-run, free-range and organic production represented about 30 per cent of total production.

B.C. egg farmer Steve Easterbrook of Rabbit River Farms believes the cage-free model is not only better for humans and hens, it’s more profitable, too. He’s been producing eggs this way since 1993, and though he predicts it will take a few decades, he can see a day when most farms will be cage-free. “Especially,” he says, “as consumer education about animal welfare and how their food is produced becomes more widespread.” And while he admits that producing cage-free eggs is more labour-intensive and costly for the farmer, the return is also greater as consumers are willing to pay more for a product that reflects their values.

In Toronto, Linda Modern Thai sources free-range eggs for its brunch menu but not for altruistic reasons. General manager Alan Liu holds views about chickens that many do: He’s is not all that concerned with a hen’s quality of life. For him says it’s all about the taste. “The only reason I go out of my way to get free-run eggs is because they taste better, and for the few cents’ difference it makes to the cost, I think it’s worth it– I think my customers will agree.”

Wu of Borealia takes another view: “As small business owners, we try to support other small businesses, and that includes small farms. Small farms also tend to put more care into their product. … We can have peace of mind knowing that these birds have a better quality of life.”

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