EDMONTON - A group representing Canadian retailers says eight of Canada's largest supermarket chains have signed on with a push to eliminate factory-farming pens that restrict the movement of pregnant pigs.

The Retail Council of Canada says Walmart Canada, Costco Canada, Metro (TSX:MRU.A), Loblaw (TSX:L), Safeway Canada, Federated Co-operatives, Sobey's and Co-op Atlantic have all committed to sourcing their pork from farmers who don't use so-called gestational crates.

Animal-welfare groups have been pushing for the change, but it won't happen over night. The retail council says participating chains will make the transition over nine years.

Dave Wilkes, the retail council's senior vice-president, believes the long timeline will allow producers the necessary time to establish new open housing arrangements in their barns.

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  • In an industrial egg-producing facility, about half of the chicks will be male and would grow up to be roosters, which do not lay eggs and therefore provide no incentive for the breeder to preserve. Most of the male chicks are usually killed shortly after being sexed.

  • A typical cage is about the size of a filing cabinet drawer and holds eight to 10 hens.

  • The young piglets stay with their mothers for two to three weeks, after which their teeth are clipped, tails cut and the males are castrated – all without anaesthetic, according to the Canadian Coalition for Farm Animals. "The piglets are taken away to be fattened in nursery pens on concrete floors, then to “grower” pens, and finally to “finisher” pens until they reach slaughter weight of 250 pounds at six months old," the CCFA adds.

  • The CCFA says pigs may be legally transported in Canada without water, food or rest, for 36 hours. Photo: Pigs from Manitoba destined for Mexico died enroute in Texas after being left for days in a transport trailer without water in temperatures of over 90 degrees Farenheit.

  • The Canadian Coalition for Farm Animals estimates that 98 per cent of Canada's 26 million egg-laying hens are kept in small, crammed "battery cages." Pictured here is a feces-covered hen at an Ontario egg farm.

  • Each bird has less space than a sheet of notebook paper, according to the Canadian Coalition for Farm Animals.

  • Unlike free range hens pictured here, hens in cages are not able to perform natural behaviours such as nesting, perching, dust-bathing and stretching a wing or walking around.

  • Out of the 30 million pigs produced every year in Canada for slaughter, most are born to sows who are kept in two-feet-wide metal gestation crates, where they are unable to even turn around during their four-month pregnancy, says the Canadian Coalition for Farm Animals.

  • The European Union banned battery cages as of January 1, 2012. Photo: Former battery hens roost in the barn of their new home.

  • Early battery cages were often used for selecting hens based on performance since it is easy to track how many eggs each hen is laying if only one hen is placed in a cage. Later, this was combined with artificial insemination, giving a technique where each egg's parentage is known. This method is still used today.

  • The passage of California Proposition 2 in 2008 aimed to reduce or eliminate problems associated with battery cages. A standard for space relative to free movement and wingspan was set, rather than cage size.

  • Spatial restriction can lead to a wide range of abnormal behaviours, some of which are injurious to the hens or their cagemates.

  • Being indoors, hens in battery cages do not see sunlight. While there is no scientific evidence for this being a welfare problem, some animal advocates indicate it is a concern.

  • According to World's Poultry Science Journal, flocks are sometimes force molted, rather than being slaughtered, to reinvigorate egg-laying. This involves complete withdrawal of food (and sometimes water) for 7 to 14 days or sufficiently long to cause a body weight loss of 25 to 35%

"The Canadian pork industry is certainly facing some pressures financially and otherwise, so we wanted to establish a realistic time frame for producers to meet these alternative housing agreements," said Wilkes.

The hope is that it will soften the price impact of products on store shelves.

"Certainly this is one of the reasons for the transition period being as long as it is," said Vic Huard, vice-president of corporate affairs for Federated Co-operatives.

"It's not something you can do quickly. It's very important for us that when this transition occurs, there are dramatic impacts on pricing for our consumers. I think that's certainly something we are acutely conscious of, and it is very important from the consumers' point of view that they not see dramatic impacts on pricing."

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The tightly confining gestational crates, in which pregnant sows are unable to turn around or lay down, have been used in factory farming for decades to easily manage the animals and prevent injuries from aggression between the animals.

In March, Calgary Co-op members voted in favour of a resolution calling for the retail chain to phase out the sale of eggs and pork produced using intensive confinement cages. The Calgary Herald reported that the motion was amended to extend the deadline to five years.

In early April, coffee shop giant Tim Hortons (TSX:THI) announced that it had asked its suppliers to move away from the crates as well.

The switch to more open housing will require industry-wide effort, said Gary Stordy with the Canadian Pork Council.

"With open housing, it's not as easy to provide individual care," said Stordy. "There's more aggressiveness with the animals, so there has to be an understanding of how to minimize the negative effects with the change to a new system.

"This is a change that does require some thorough research on how barns can be adapted of course."

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