Manitoba Egg Producers Adopt Alternate Housing Standards

“We don’t want

governments and retailers telling us what to do.”

– KURT SIEMENS, MEF

Manitoba egg producers have taken a major step toward alternate housing for hens by introducing new animal welfare standards for layer barns.

The new policy will eventually mean the phasing out of battery cages, currently the industry standard for housing layer hens.

Beginning in 2018, new layer barns in the province must have facilities that support the so-called “Five Freedoms” for farm animals, which were introduced in Europe in the mid-1960s and have since become a standard used by animal welfare groups to demand changes in livestock housing.

They include: freedom from thirst, hunger and malnutrition; freedom from discomfort; freedom from pain, injury and disease; freedom to express normal behaviour; freedom from fear and distress.

It will mean that if producers choose to install a cage system to house their hens after 2018, they will have to use so-called “enriched cages” that allow hens to express natural behaviours such as nesting, roosting and scratching.

Existing operations will not have to meet the new requirements until they undergo a major renovation.

Manitoba Egg Farmers introduced the policy at its annual meeting in Winnipeg March 10.

MEF officials said producers must control their destiny by adapting to alternate housing systems before animal welfare groups and public pressure force it on them.

But some at the meeting questioned the need.

“I don’t believe my hens right now are depleted of any of these freedoms,” said Tim Ruby, a producer from Steinbach. “And if they were, I would fix it myself.”

Ruby said it was pointless to try to satisfy animal welfare activists, arguing they are out to abolish the commercial production of chickens, not to improve their comfort.

“These people are people you will never, never, never satisfy.”

Penny Kelly, MEF general manager, disagreed.

“This has nothing to do with appeasing the activists,” she said. “It’s to take us off their radar screen.”

Battery cages, which are being phased out in Europe, are coming under increasing pressure in North America. A recent example is Proposition 2, a voter initiative in California to ban confinement rearing for farm animals, including layer hens, by 2015. Voters in other U. S. states have passed similar measures. Several major U. S. fast-food chains require humane

welfare standards for meat animals from their suppliers.

Adopting alternative housing standards will help take the pressure off Manitoba egg farmers, Kelly said.

Kurt Siemens, an MEF director, said the marketing board is being proactive. He said while he agrees producers are already doing a good job delivering good care for their birds, new research is indicating they are falling short in one area.

“The only one we are missing is the behavioural part of it,” he said. “This is the scientific standard that is coming forward now.”

Siemens said birds have a natural tendency to perch and nest. “Enriched cages can provide those two things,” he said.

“We don’t want governments and retailers telling us what to do,” he said. “We have to be at the leading edge.”

Paul Born, a Kleefeld producer, noted enriched cages are more expensive than conventional ones and wondered how farmers would recapture the cost.

Siemens, a producer from Rosenort, said farmers will initially carry the cost. But over time, the cost-of-production formula, which determines producer prices, would start to reflect those costs. As more producers implement enriched cages, the surveys of producers used to determine the cost-of-production formula will gradually start to reflect higher capital costs incurred, he said.

But Siemens said the eggs from enriched-cage barns would not be segregated or marketed differently than eggs from conventional operations.

Some producers wondered why Manitoba is unilaterally switching to alternate hen housing instead of waiting for a national policy.

Kelly said MEF feels a national approach would take too long and “we can’t afford to drag behind.”

Manitoba, along with British Columbia, have been under more pressure from animal welfare groups than other provinces.

MEF signalled in late 2009 it was moving toward alternative housing. Three new producers were each given 6,000 quota units (hens) through a draw, provided they used enriched cages.

It’s uncertain how many operations the policy will impact when they take effect. The meeting was told the standards will apply to new facilities and ones undergoing extensive retrofitting. Existing facilities will be grandfathered.

Bruce Vincent, guest speaker at the MEF meeting, applauded producers for their initiative.

It’s an example of producers defending their “social licence” by taking control of the animal welfare agenda, said Vincent, a third-generation logger from Libby, Montana and a motivational speaker on resource issues.

“Leading is the only way you’re going to defend your industry,” Vincent told the meeting in a keynote address.

Bill McDonald, Winnipeg Humane Society executive director, said his organization is “very, very pleased” that Manitoba egg producers recognize the concept of the Five Freedoms.

“We’ve been promoting the Five Freedoms for a long, long time,” said McDonald. “That’s a major step forward, in our mind, that the producers are willing to accept that kind of policy.”

Although the implementation of the policy is years away, McDonald said he recognized it takes time to move from one housing system to another.

“Over time, ultimately the hens will have a better quality of life. It’s a decade out, but so be it.” [email protected]

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