When McDonald's Restaurants announced in September of last year that it was going to stop using eggs from hens kept in cages, it was seen by many as the beginning of the end for inhumane, intensive cage systems in the egg industry.
Animal advocates and compassionate consumers cheered as McDonald's joined a growing list of fast food chains across North America going cage-free, including Wendy's, Subway, Taco Bell, Dunkin' Donuts and Starbucks. Other big food companies such as Nestle, General Mills and Compass Group have also joined the trend.
But not everyone is on board with freeing hens from incarceration. Canadian chain A&W Restaurants appears to be a firm holdout, opting instead to use eggs from hens in "enriched cages." The company's website states: "We have a commitment that all of our hens will live in enriched housing by the end of 2016."
Enriched cages are slightly bigger than battery cages and have been promoted as providing better welfare for hens, but they have not lived up to the agriculture industry hype and have been described as disappointing by Dr. Ian Duncan, Canada's leading poultry welfare scientist.
In 2010, eight major animal welfare agencies signed a joint statement condemning enriched cages, declaring: "It is clear that such modified cages fail to properly meet the hens' physical or behavioural needs. They provide an unacceptably restrictive amount of space per bird; severely restrict many important physical activities, including running, flying and wing-flapping; and do not permit unrestrained perching and dustbathing. The severe restriction of the hens' ability to exercise is likely to lead to frustration, bone weakness and osteoporosis -- clear indicators of poor welfare."
The obvious problem, which the public and much of the food industry seem to recognize, is that a cage is still a cage.
Yet A&W seems determined to buck the trend and wed itself to enriched cages. In an email to the Vancouver Humane Society (VHS), a company representative states, "In the instance of laying hens, we felt that making an immediate improvement to the housing for hens that lay eggs for us was our priority. Enriched housing significantly improves their lives, provides for worker welfare and food safety, and it was something that we knew we could influence quickly," noting that it is not the company's practice to communicate long-range intentions.
"While McDonald's and Wendy's are racing ahead to appear like chicken liberators, A&W risks branding itself as the guys who keep hens locked up."
The problem with trying to make "an immediate improvement" is that once suppliers make an investment in enriched housing, which is very expensive, it means they will be stuck with the system for years. By relying on these suppliers A&W is tying itself to enriched housing when it is clear the fast food industry has decided that this system is not the answer to poultry welfare problems.
A&W's position is curious, given the efforts it has made to brand itself as a progressive food retailer. Canadians are familiar with the company's television ads promoting its "vegetarian-fed" chicken and beef with "no added hormones or steroids" (although neither policy affects animal welfare). While McDonald's and Wendy's are racing ahead to appear like chicken liberators, A&W risks branding itself as the guys who keep hens locked up.
A&W's position seems even more odd, considering that it is headquartered in British Columbia, where the Canadian cage-free movement is strongest. VHS has run a ChickenOUT! campaign for years, helping push B.C. to reach the highest cage-free egg production in Canada (17 per cent versus a national average of three per cent).
Even the egg industry has seen the writing on the wall and is gearing up for change. As the chairman of the B.C. Egg Marketing Board told a Vancouver newspaper last September, "This trend is going to continue and we are well-positioned to meet the demand. We know that animal welfare is top of mind for the hospitality industry and consumers alike."
What a pity that A&W is choosing to ignore that trend, positioning itself firmly on the wrong side of history while the rest of the industry moves forward.
VHS has launched an online petition calling on A&W to follow the lead of other food companies and switch to using cage-free eggs.
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