It is possible for a large commercial egg farm to run a humane operation and still turn a profit, animal welfare experts say.

The most important step is to get rid of the battery cages, the current industry standard in North America for laying hens.

In the European Union, as of last year, battery cages are banned because of their small size and barrenness. In Manitoba, egg producers are phasing out battery cages.

About 100 days after hatching, when they are still pullets and have yet to start laying eggs, the hens are placed into the crowded wired cages, usually arranged in very long rows often stacked one on top of the other.

Battery cages can be seen in a hidden-camera video that went viral over the weekend. The video comes from the group Mercy for Animals Canada and was recorded in the summer at Ku-Ku Farms and Creekside Grove Farms in Alberta.

Replacing battery cages

Tina Widowski, the director of the Campbell Centre for the study of Animal Welfare at the University of Guelph, says replacing battery cages with furnished cages is the "best choice for enriching hens' lives with the least effect on the bottom line."

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Tina Widowski, the director of the Campbell Centre for the study of Animal Welfare at the University of Guelph, says replacing battery cages with furnished cages is the "best choice for enriching hens' lives with the least effect on the bottom line." (Nancy Raulston/Courtesy Tina Widowski)

Furnished cages give a hen more than twice the space of the smaller battery cages and provide a nest, a perch and an area for scratching and foraging.

Ian Duncan, who chairs the Global Animal Partnership’s welfare and farming advisory committee, supports a move to furnished cages, but says a free run or aviary system would be better still. The latter, with several levels, has been described as a condo for birds.

Duncan says these methods can be used in intensive, large-scale operations, but the bird's welfare is better. The operating costs would be higher, he admits, and the farms would then need to charge more, but he thinks consumers are willing to pay a bit more if better welfare is guaranteed.

Widowski estimates that furnished cages would increase production costs by eight per cent over battery cages and a free run system would result in a 20 to 25 per cent increase.

A study published in Australia in September looked at free-range egg farms, where chickens are allowed outdoor access. The number of free-range farms in Australia has increased 65 per cent over the last five years.

The scientists found that when the chickens go outside, they stick close to a shed or to walls or fences the scientists placed within a large enclosed area. When the walls were present, the birds would venture much further from the barn. The additional walls add a sense of protection from flying predators like eagles and hawks, and also provide environmental stimulation.

Will you pay more for eggs?

Canada is in the midst of a multi-year process of reviewing its national standards or codes of practices for the care and handling of farm animals. While these are voluntary codes, Widowski says they form the basis for legislation in a number of provinces, often included in animal welfare laws.

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Animal welfare expert Ian Duncan says eggs are "ridiculously cheap" and that farmers have really succeeded at providing us with cheap food but there's a price to be paid for that and it's the animals paying that price. (Courtesy University of Guelph)

"Farm animal welfare has become a part of doing business in animal agriculture," Widowski says, adding that she paid twice as much for the free-run eggs she bought this past weekend.

"I believe that if we want animal care standards to change we have to be willing to pay for it."

But will consumers in general pay more for their eggs?

Duncan notes that eggs are "ridiculously cheap" and that farmers have succeeded at providing us with cheap food over the last 70 years or so. But there's a price to be paid for that, and he said it's the animals paying that price.

He says that if the general public could see the conditions of the hens that are kept in the battery cages, they would pay a little more for their eggs, as long as they were convinced it would improve animal welfare.

And he thinks that is beginning to happen in North America. It's already happening in Europe, he says, which on this issue he considers to be 10 to 15 years ahead.

Asking the hens

One way to work out how to improve the welfare of chickens is to ask the hens, says Ian Duncan, chair of the Global Animal Partnership.

He describes one technique for doing so. Hens have good colour vision, so he would keep them in pens with coloured nesting boxes. Once a hen began to show an interest in nesting, which it does by giving a distinct call and adopting a certain posture and looking into the nesting boxes, he would take them out of the pen.

Duncan's team would then put the hen on a runway, with a coloured nesting box at the far end of the runway.

"Birds very quickly run along the runway and go into the nest box and show very normal nesting behaviour," he says.

Tina Widowski, director of the Campbell Centre for the study of Animal Welfare at the University of Guelph, identifies additional methods for questioning hens, like giving them preference tests, where they have to make a choice, sometimes by pressing a key, or observing their stress physiology.