When purchasing eggs at the grocery store, consumers often run into a variety of terms highlighted on the cartons. Terms like ‘free run, free range, and cage-free’ are widely advertised, but what do they actually mean? And how do they apply to the laying hens?
Almost 90% of Canada’s roughly 26 million laying hens are housed in battery cage systems. This is a term used to describe the rows upon rows of wire cages used to confine hens, an image which vastly resembles the inner cells of a battery. Hens housed in battery cages are densely packed, with 3-8 hens in any given cage. They are unable to stretch their wings, fly, roost, dust bathe, forage, or even walk more than a few steps. Battery cages are either ‘conventional’ or ‘furnished/enriched’ housing systems. Enriched or furnished battery cages provide hens with plastic flaps over a small designated nest area, along with a perch, whereas conventional cages do not. Conventional battery cage systems built prior to 2017 only require 24cm by 24cm of living space per bird, according to the National Farm Animal Care Council’s Codes of Practice for Laying Hens. Enriched battery cages built after 2017 only require 27.4cm by 27.4cm of living space per bird. For perspective, a single piece of loose-leaf paper measures 28cm by 21.5cm. Canadian egg producers have given a timeline until 2036 for all barns to transition to alternative housing systems.
Free run eggs are produced by hens in open concept barns. Such barns provide hens the ability to exist on the barn floor without confinement to a cage. Though arguably better than battery cages, free run hens can be densely packed into a barn, with no outdoor access provided. Hens can be housed in single or multi-tier systems, with minimum 30cm by 30cm of space required per bird (equivalent to one standard ruler). As a result, hens can still be quite restricted in their ability to forage, fly, roam, and more.
Free range eggs are produced by laying hens in open concept barns, that provide the hens with an unspecified amount of outdoor access. This term can apply to barns that houses over 1000 hens, or to a small-scale farm with only a handful of chickens.
‘Cage-free eggs’ is a common term used to describe any sort of housing system, other than battery cages. The term does not guarantee that hens have outdoor access.
The Winnipeg Humane Society encourages supporters to research more about Canada’s egg industry, source their eggs from small-scale farms that provide their hens with a high quality of life, and to try plant-based egg alternatives.
To learn how you can volunteer on our Animal Compassion Team, please email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org