Is Animal Welfare a Real Priority for Consumers?

I have been involved firsthand in many of the changes that are being required of agriculture to respond to animal welfare demands by consumers.  I have noticed a few things that I think are very interesting, and, frankly, movie-worthy.

Consumer pressure has pushed for the removal of gestation stalls for sows and caged housing for laying hens, pressure against fast growing broiler chickens, and removal of antibiotics, hormones and growth promotants in all animals.  We can debate the end result of many of these requests, and whether they actually result in improved animal welfare, or whether the gain is worth the loss in other areas such as environmental impact, human health or economics.  That is interesting, but the question I keep running up against is whether the public ACTUALLY WANTS the things they are “asking” for.

Huh?  I know you are asking yourself if I’ve bumped my head or drank too much (questions I’ve had to face far too often in my career), but bear with me.  I am going to use caged chickens as an example to show you what I mean (the blog is not Mikethepigvet, after all).

Don’t get me wrong….I understand that animal welfare is a big concern for some people, and those people have been making choices of what to buy based on their values for years.  And I believe that almost everyone has a desire, all things being equal, that animals be treated well.  BUT, remember that improving animal welfare makes eggs more expensive…cage free eggs will always be more expensive than caged eggs, and organic eggs will always be more expensive than both.  Does the general public want welfare improvements enough to pay for them?

Think back a couple years….on TV is a lovable guy who works for A&W, and he is telling you that you can get a burger that is free of hormones, antibiotics and guilt (I might be paraphrasing).  This ad campaign was hugely successful, and A&W became a  much bigger


Yeah, this guy….how could you NOT believe him?

player in the fast-food arena, despite not bringing back the drive in.  A&W had identified a concern held by some of the consumers, and addressed it.  They were seen as good, responsive corporate citizens, and gained trust and goodwill.

Other restaurants had to respond…they were losing business.  Enter McDonalds.  They had been struggling with their image as the prototypical fast-food outlet and blamed for singlehandedly causing the obesity trend in the world.  In response, they rolled out all day breakfast and pledged to source eggs from only cage-free hens.  They had a very solid response and uptick in business and image.

In Ronald’s eyes, the public really WANTED cage free eggs….the switch was in response to public values.  People responded to McDonald’s doing something that made them seem like “good guys”…, Egg McMuffins are delicious.

Other restaurants saw a behemoth like McDs moving to cage-free and followed suit, because the public wanted it.

Around the same time, surveys were done by activist groups that showed that 90+% of people felt it was important to treat animals kindly and that confinement was not kind.

So….come to my part of the world.  Over the past few years, more chickens have been housed in aviaries and other cage-free houses in Ontario….to meet the commitments made by the big retailers.  Everyone built a little bigger than they needed to, because – hey, the public wants cage-free eggs, and the market would do nothing but expand, and eggs that didn’t go to the food retailers would sell like hotcakes (also delicious) in the grocery store.

Why, then, are there thousands of dozens of eggs being produced in aviaries and floor barns in Ontario being sold as regular eggs….without earning the premium price that is necessary to pay for the more expensive method of production?  There are cage-free eggs front and center in every egg display in every grocery store in the province…..I have trouble finding the regular eggs that I buy (they are at knee level, near the back of the cooler).  I thought the public WANTED cage-free eggs.

Why, then, has the demand for specialty eggs not increased noticeably?  It continues to creep slowly upwards, but the number of organic, free-run, and cage-free eggs bought in the store is essentially the same, and well less than 10% of eggs sold.  (I don’t count omega-3 eggs in this, because they are produced by changing the birds diet, and are laid predominantly by chickens in cages).

Consider this…..are consumers responding to the willingness of the restaurants to show that they are responsive and “good guys”, more than an alignment with specific animal welfare priorities.  Consumers “accept” the changes in the restaurants, but don’t “choose” those same eggs in the store.

The implications for farmers are huge….they are going to change their way of housing birds, but if they invest millions into non-cage systems, but the public doesn’t want to buy them they will literally go broke.  If they invest millions in the new furnished cage systems, and the public DOES demand cage-free in the store, they will go broke.  Makes me glad I’m not making the decision right now, but it does make me worry for the friends I have in the industry.


Mike the Chicken Vet




















9 responses to “Is Animal Welfare a Real Priority for Consumers?

  1. I have a possible reason for the lack of sales:

    I have backyard chickens that I love dearly. Many of my friends do not buy the cage free, free run eggs at the store because they think that they are being scammed and that these chickens are treated the same as all of the rest. Mine love running around and are very healthy, it makes me feel good to see this. But even here there are restrictions. Neighbours feed the foxes so I cannot let them run outside the fence.

    Elaine Bradley in Meldrum Bay

    • That could be part of it Elaine…public attitudes are hard to truly get a handle on. Do these neighbors buy caged eggs, or do they find sources such as yourself to buy eggs from hens they know are treated the way they want? ie. are they interested enough in welfare to find the kind of eggs they consider “humane”?

  2. I keep hens too, and I have a lineup of people wanting my eggs, even though I do not advertise them at all. At least two are very careful about the sources of all their food choices. One is actually allergic to store eggs but can eat mine(?) One swears store eggs don’t bake the way mine do. So in their ways they are all making a definite choice for my eggs. They are prepared to wait, endure inconvenience or not eat eggs if they can’t get mine. However their reasons are about the quality of food they eat, not necessarily because my hens are happy.

  3. I wouldn’t dream of buying eggs from chickens that I have never personally met. I prefer to do without if I must. Commercially raised chickens are killed when their production reduces – at 2 years of age at the most! A regular back yard chicken can live to be 8 years old and older. I could not have the slaughter of thousands of healthy chickens on my conscience – it’s bad enough that all the males are ground up alive as day old chicks. And the public in general have caught on to the fact that cage free still means overcrowded inhumane conditions, and free range label on the carton means the chickens have access to the outside. Theoretical access. In a cage with over a thousand birds and one doorway a couple of meters wide does not allow many chickens to exit. Rather pay the true price of eggs produced from happy hens than have my government subsidise cruel animal husbandry practices. BTW did you know that the EU does not deem chickens to be worthy of the protection of law to make sure their killing procedure is humane?

  4. This is a PR issue for the industry. The public does not understand the animal welfare issues involved at all.

  5. Hi Mike..I have a question for you. What are your thoughts on ROPA Poultry Complete . Its is a natural supplement for chickens to improve thier over all health and quality of eggs. I have talked to many people who have used it and swear by it. I have about the positive effect on birds and thier health and was just wondering what you think as a chicken vet??? Thank you very much Cheryl Murphy

    • Hi Cheryl,

      I have never used ROPA supplements, so have no first hand knowledge of the product. I know it is an oregano based product, which is a perennial natural supplement. I’ve never seen a scientific study that supports any claim made by oregano proponents. Also, being Natural doesn’t necessarily mean innocuous…..opium is all natural too. I prefer to feed good, balanced feed and clean water. If I’m going to try to fix a problem, I use products that I know the effects of, and the full ingredient list. I’m not saying that the product doesn’t work or isn’t a good additive, it’s just not the type of thing I would use.

      Hope that helps


    • Cheryl! Have I taught you nothing?! Lo!! I know that you feed your chickens a high quality, complete, commercial layer feed with clean water, and provide spacious, dry, clean living conditions and good biosecurity. Your flock is healthy and productive- they don’t need gimmicks or supplements like this.

      • I know Kathy but I have been listening to someone or someones who said a lot of great things so I was just curious . Your right my birds do get a complete layer feed and fresh clean water and a dry living space and good bio security I was just having ” I wonder moment and looking for thoughts?”

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