The contentious question of how comfortable Canada's egg-laying hens should be has rattled the industry and now hatched its own university chair.
Consumers have become increasingly concerned over farm conditions, and some retailers have responded by releasing welfare rankings that are forcing suppliers to clean up or disclose their practices.
The trend has also preoccupied agricultural producers who have begun to view the humane treatment of livestock as an issue on par with food safety - a responsibility that merits serious consideration to head off a potential fallout with a client base that is more ethically minded than ever before.
Against this backdrop, and amidst a raging global debate over the dominant practice of caging egg-laying hens, the Egg Farmers of Canada, a national industry group, will announce Thursday a new sponsorship: the country's first academic Chair of Poultry Welfare, at the University of Guelph.
The Ontario school houses the country's largest contingent of animal welfare scientists. The chair, which will go to expert Tina Widowski via a gift of $110,000 a year for the next seven years, is one of three positions the Egg Farmers plan to fund as part of a long-term plan to take what spokesman Peter Clarke called a "proactive" approach to preparing for the future. Mr. Clarke said the investment has nothing to do with pressure from retailers or activists.
However, there is little doubt that branding their investment in animal welfare research will help the industry group with an image problem that has been plaguing egg producers since last year. Hundreds of thousands of eggs were recalled in the United States due to a salmonella outbreak; animal rights activists seized the recall as a chance to illuminate the link some studies have shown between increased disease and battery cages. In them, half a dozen hens are packed into an area roughly the size of an open newspaper. Expected to produce 300 eggs a year, the hens are afforded few liberties.
Publicity over battery cages has led to controversial bans of the systems in several U.S. states. Many farmers argue against shifting away from the cages because of high costs and fears over reduced profits. Canada's egg industry group does not have a position on which housing mode is right or wrong, but demystifying the issue will top their list of research requests.
"Solving disease problems and comfort problems almost certainly leads to better productivity," said David Fraser, one of Canada's top animal welfare experts at the University of British Columbia who has worked for the United Nations and the U.S. Food Marketing Institute, which represents fast food and grocery retailers. "Whether it leads to greater profit or not is a more complex question. Investing in more comfortable facilities may not give the best return on investment," he said, explaining farmers' resistance.
Despite this, the European Union has instituted a ban on the cages that starts in 2012. But in Canada, movement on the debate has lagged. Only Manitoba has made the decision to phase out battery cages by 2018. Loblaws, the country's largest grocery chain, has shown the most leadership on the issue by pledging in a 2010 Corporate Social Responsibility report to ensure that all private label brand eggs become cage-free.
Animal welfare advocates say they are concerned about the outcomes of the sponsored research at Guelph.
"My concern would be that they might just be trying to reinforce the existing confinement systems which have been in place for 60 years and are incredibly cruel," said Stephanie Brown, director of the Canadian Coalition for Farm Animals.
Prof. Widowski said her team's research results will not be influenced by the Egg Farmers' funding. Animal welfare science has traditionally been underfunded, she said, and has always relied heavily on industry partnerships. The advantage of the Egg Farmers' deal, she said, will be an open dialogue with industry that will allow researchers to work on immediate problems.
Mr. Clarke, the Egg Farmers' spokesman, said members have no intentions of trying to affect Prof. Widowski's conclusions.
"Just because we're funding them doesn't in any way mean we have any control over them," he said. "Our industry is prepared for the outcomes … sometimes you might not always like the message, but well-founded scientific research needs to be respected."