You know the old riddle: Which came first, the chicken or the egg?
Well, in the case of cage-free eggs - the latest must-have product for animal-welfare activists and politically correct corporations - the hype seems to have come before the chicken and the egg.
Sparked by concern over the living conditions of commercial egg-laying hens, the B.C. cities of Richmond, Vancouver and Whistler recently vowed that their municipal cafeterias would only serve eggs laid by chickens raised in large open barns instead of stacks of small wire cages.
Those commitments, made earlier this year, were followed by similar moves by employers such as Google and postsecondary institutions such as the University of Guelph in Ontario, the University of British Columbia and Langara College in Vancouver. In the United States, Burger King and ice-cream giant Ben & Jerry's are phasing regular eggs out of their products.
But the recent spate of corporate promises hasn't had the trickle-down effect that animal rights activists have hoped for. Consumers still aren't rushing to buy cage-free eggs - and until that happens, egg producers say there's no reason to tear out their cages.
Less than 3 per cent of the eggs sold in Canada are laid by roaming hens, according to the Canadian Egg Marketing Agency. A major reason may be cost: Consumers pay an average of $2.31 for a dozen regular eggs, compared with $4.16 for cage-free varieties. These include "free-range," where hens roam indoors and outdoors; "free-run," where hens roam only indoors; and "organic," a label that guarantees, among other things, that chickens aren't housed in battery cages.
While cage-free egg sales have grown slightly in recent years, they're nowhere near the skyrocketing sales of other specialty brands, such as omega-3 enhanced eggs, which promise health benefits for people, not chickens. Without market demand, producers aren't rushing to pour millions of dollars into cage-free housing systems.
"You're asking me to produce without a market," says Harold Froese, a second-generation egg producer whose Manitoba facility houses 100,000 hens. "That's pretty tough."
Currently, 98 per cent of the six billion eggs produced each year in Canada come from farms that use caged chickens, the Canadian Egg Marketing Agency says.
Some producers who have switched to cage-free varieties say they're producing more eggs than they can sell.
"We've never sold all that we have available," said Margaret Hudson, vice-president of sales at Burnbrae Farms. She estimates the company has a 10-per-cent surplus of free-range eggs each year.
Headquartered in Ontario, Burnbrae is one of the largest egg producers in Canada. The company added free-range eggs to its repertoire in 1997, after doing research in Europe and undergoing multimillion-dollar renovations on some of its barns.
"To do it right, it's a massive investment," Ms. Hudson said. "Now we're selling enough eggs to at least break even."
Other producers question whether the birds are really better off, saying that keeping thousands of hens on the floor of a building can lead to hunger, disease and cannibalism if not managed properly.
Still, activists continue to be encouraged by commitments made by municipalities and large companies in recent months.
"[City cafeterias]don't use a lot of eggs," said Bruce Passmore, co-ordinator of the Vancouver Humane Society's ChickenOut! project, a national initiative to end the use of battery cages. "But the education value of them switching and actually coming out and saying that they don't support this cruel farming practice is really important."
Mr. Passmore helped lobby Whistler, Richmond and Vancouver to make the switch to cage-free eggs in their municipal cafeterias. He's hoping that will inspire more consumers to jump on board.
"Nobody wants to support that kind of cruelty when they see it," Mr. Passmore said.***
CRACKING THE CAGE
It can be confusing to unscramble one type of egg from another. If you want eggs laid by chickens that aren't raised in battery cages, here are three options:
Organic eggs are produced by hens fed certified organic grains, and have the same nutritional content as regular eggs. Check for the "certified organic" designation on the carton along with the name of the certifying organization. The Certified Organic Associations of British Columbia and Pro-Cert Canada have the most humane requirements for egg production systems, according to the Vancouver Humane Society.
Free-run eggs are produced by hens that can move around the floor of the barn. Hens have access to nesting boxes and, quite often, perches.
Free-range eggs are laid in environments similar to free-run eggs, but hens also have access to the outdoors. For that reason, these eggs are seasonally available in Canada, and most come from British Columbia.
Source: The Canadian Egg Marketing Agency