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Chickens gather at the entrance to a barn at Twin Willows Enterprises free-range egg farm in Chilliwack, B.C., Dec. 18, 2015.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

The vast majority of egg farmers in Canada have promised to move away from the controversial hen-housing system known as "battery cages" within the next 20 years, The Globe and Mail has learned.

On Friday, the Egg Farmers of Canada, which represents about 90 per cent of egg producers in this country, will announce a pledge to do away with battery cages by 2036 – the final remaining piece in what has been a massive movement away from battery cages toward alternative styles of production. The battery cage system has been under intense scrutiny from activists and scientists due to animal welfare concerns.

"In response to the best available scientific research and in light of changing consumer preferences, I'm pleased that the entire industry has agreed to an orderly transition plan that will further diversify our production practices," EFC chairman Peter Clarke said in a statement to be released Friday.

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Critics have pointed to the cramped conditions in which birds are housed in battery cages, with each hen living in an area about the size of a magazine. The European Union and at least two states in the U.S. have enacted bans against battery cages.

"They can't actually move or extend their wings, the cages are barren, they have no enrichment, nothing to occupy their minds," Canadian Federation of Humane Societies CEO Barbara Cartwright said in an interview on Thursday.

Animal activist groups such as Mercy For Animals and PETA have also taken aim at battery cages, pressuring giant food companies such as McDonald's and Starbucks to stop buying eggs produced in them. As a result, most major fast-food companies in North America – including the aforementioned restaurants, as well as Tim Hortons, Burger King and Wendy's – have pledged in recent months to move toward cage-free eggs in the coming years.

It's not yet clear which of the alternative systems most EFC members will adopt – although the group's statement did hint at a preference for the caged system known as "furnished" or "enriched." These are essentially larger cages that give birds more space in which to move around, and also offer access to perches and nesting boxes.

Producers could also opt for cage-free, which includes either free-run or free-range (the latter offers access to the outdoors).

About 10 per cent of Canada's egg farmers use either the enriched or cage-free systems.

Also unclear is how the shift will affect the cost of eggs for consumers. A 2015 University of California, Davis, study found that producing a dozen eggs in an enriched system costs farmers 13 per cent more than in battery cages. Cage-free eggs, meanwhile, cost 36 per cent more.

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The 20-year timeline will give the approximately 1,000 members of the EFC time to transition their costly equipment and barns to a new system. The timeline also, according to the EFC, takes into account "the market, affordability for consumers, pullet rearing and other supply chain aspects, resource implications, and a number of construction and equipment realities."

The announcement comes at the same time that the National Farm Animal Care Council – which includes farmers, veterinarians, welfare experts, humane societies and government officials – negotiates an update to the code of practice for egg farmers. That process is expected to be completed by the beginning of next year.

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