Ethical omelettes
A coalition that wants to get laying hens out of cages is directing its free-range campaign at universities and colleges

April 03, 2007
Stuart Laidlaw
Faith and Ethics
The Toronto Star

Munching on salad and sipping coffee at a café in the basement of the University of Toronto's Hart House, second year history student Wokie Fraser confesses she's never really thought much about eggs, where they come from or why they seem so affordable.

There is always a carton of eggs in her refrigerator, she says. She buys them pretty much every week, almost without thought.

That changes, however, as she grimaces at images released a few minutes earlier, two floors up, as a campaign was launched to change the kind of eggs bought and sold on university campuses across Canada.

"I never really thought much about this," Fraser says, looking at stills from a video snuck out of an egg barn in south-western Ontario and released yesterday.

The pictures have an impact.

"What else is there?" she asks.

At the earlier media conference, members of the Canadian Coalition for Farm Animals attempted to answer that question. In fact, it's just the kind of question they hope more people will ask as a result of their new campaign, launched yesterday.

"This is the reality of how 98 per cent of our eggs are produced," Stephanie Brown, spokeswoman for the coalition, tells the media conference.

Behind her plays a video of laying hens crammed into 16-by 18-inch battery cages, three to a cage. The hens' feathers are worn off by constant rubbing against the bars of the cages. Exposed skin, she says, is burned by ammonia levels in the barn.

"The science is clear on battery cages. Hens suffer," she says. "A hen has a space smaller than a piece of paper for her entire life."

Brown said the tight space makes it impossible for the hens to act like hens, giving themselves dust baths, perching on things, stretching their wings.

The coalition wants to end such conditions. Its new campaign to convince universities and colleges to switch to free-range or organic eggs, is its way to build up a critical mass of demand for such eggs.

That, in turn, will make it easier to build supply chains for the mainstream market.

"We are asking all consumers to opt for cage-free eggs," says Lynn Kavanagh, also with the coalition. "There are alternatives."

She suggests consumers buy free-range or free run (from hens allowed to wander around a barn) or organic eggs (from hens allowed outside, weather permitting), and to avoid eggs from caged birds. Ultimately, she would like to see eggs from hens in cages labelled as such.

But for now, the emphasis is on getting universities to switch. She hopes to build on the momentum of a similar campaign in the U.S., where more than 100 colleges and universities have signed on to be cage-free.

In Canada, the University of Guelph announced last week that it begin selling cage-free alongside regular eggs, after students voted for the move.

The University of Toronto, meanwhile, is involved in a similar program, committing to bring local, sustainable and ethical food to its cafeterias.

Kavanagh says she recognizes that farmers have money tied up in their battery cages, so advocates a phasing in of free-range egg systems. As cages wear out, she wants farmers to be encouraged to shift to free-range rather than buy new cages.

The university campaign is meant to provide that encouragement by helping to establish a wider market for the niche product. And the wider the market is, she says, the cheaper the eggs will be and the more inroads they will be able to make to the wider consumer sector.

Harry Pelissero of the Egg Farmers of Ontario, which represents both cage and cage-free farms, says he has no problem with universities offering students cage-free eggs, as long as they have a choice to buy conventional eggs, as well.

"That's certainly something we could support," he says. "Our farmers will grow whatever consumers demand."

Brown says a study for the University of Guelph found that free-range eggs would cost about 20 cents more an egg, or 40 cents for an omelette. "People will pay for ethically raised foods," she said.

Sitting with Fraser in the café, and also having salad and a coffee, first year arts student Karim Blair agrees. He already buys free-range eggs.

"You feel better about yourself when you buy free-range."

Fraser nods. She can see his point. She likes fair trade coffee, which costs more so that more money can get to farmers in developing countries.

So can see the argument for using her consumer dollars to change the way eggs are produced.

"Forty cents isn't that much," she says. "I really should switch."

battery caged chickens

Undercover film footage taken by the Canadian Coalition for Farm Animals
shows laying hens with feathers rubbed off from constant rubbing against their cages.