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University of Guelph cracks under pressure to serve free-run eggs

Tobi Cohen
Canadian Press
Wednesday, March 21, 2007

TORONTO (CP) - Animal welfare advocates are applauding a decision by Canada's top agricultural university to break the status quo and switch to serving free-run eggs for breakfast.

Ontario's University of Guelph voted in favour of adopting a cage-free egg policy after staff and students agreed to cover the 50 per cent price hike.

The policy, a first for a Canadian university or college, is expected to take effect in September and will affect about 250,000 shelled eggs each year.

"Basically our research showed that battery cages are a pretty inhumane system, and we felt that this was something that we could go to operationally that would be supported by the university community, and that it was the right thing to do," hospitality services executive director David Boeckner said Wednesday.

A number of other Canadian universities are also considering the move, including the University of Toronto, Simon Fraser, the University of British Columbia, Concordia and McGill, said Bruce Passmore of the Vancouver Humane Society, who is also a co-ordinator of the Chicken Out project, a national initiative to end the use of battery cages.

"This is a really important step for us here in Canada, and we're hoping that if a Canadian premier agricultural university can go cage-free, any university can," Passmore said.

"By getting hens out of cages, you're removing one of the worst forms of animal cruelty."

The activist group Guelph Students for the Ethical Treatment of Animals began pushing for the policy two years ago after learning about the "horrific" living conditions hens were subjected to on a farm owned by a member of the dean's veterinary advisory council.

"Just the idea that someone who was very well-respected in terms of animal welfare and agriculture is overseeing an operation where there's so much cruelty and suffering, it really makes you question those in the industry who are always defending their practices," said 23-year-old biology student Misha Buob, who helped push for the policy.

University officials polled more than 300 students before making the decision to purchase free-run eggs, which are laid by chickens that are allowed to move around within the confines of a barn. The ban does not cover liquid eggs or pre-baked goods that might contain eggs.

Despite the precedent-setting move by the university, Passmore said Canada is still way behind on the issue.

The European Union has passed a resolution to ban battery cages by 2012, and more than 100 colleges and universities in the United States have already adopted policies similar to Guelph's, he said.

Josh Balk of the Humane Society of the United States said a number of large companies like Google and AOL have stopped using eggs from caged hens in their corporate cafeterias, while many grocery and restaurant chains no longer use them in their products.

Balk said a number of city councils in Maryland, California and Florida have also passed resolutions opposing the confinement of hens in battery cages, while urging citizens to buy cage-free eggs.

Passmore said the ultimate goal is to influence production practices by increasing the demand for free-range, free-run, certified organic and SPCA-certified eggs as opposed to the standard caged ones, which account for about 98 per cent of the Canadian market.

Some Canadian egg producers, however, called the university's move a blow to consumer choice.

"I'm disappointed and concerned that they would take this action and take choice away from the students," said Harry Pelissero, a third-generation egg producer and general manager of Egg Farmers of Ontario.

"Consumers have a choice in the supermarket with respect to the type of eggs that they want to buy and the type of housing arrangement that those birds were raised in."

Pelissero argued cage-free living isn't necessarily all its cracked up to be since free-range chickens are exposed to predators, inclement weather and pecking orders.

"You're actually, I think, protecting the birds," he said of raising chickens in cages.

"But that should be a consumer's choice, and if enough consumers make the choice to move to an alternate system of demanding where their eggs come from, our farmers will respond."