chickens

Cage-free eggs are all the buzz in the natural food world, and even in a big chunk of mainstream food. While more than 90 percent of chickens raised in the United States still live in cages, public demand is pushing for more cage-free and humanely produced options. But, is cage-free the healthiest choice for chickens and people? Food Safety News says the debate continues in the egg industry.

Big food companies promising a switch to cage-free eggs in recent years include Unilever, which sells Hellmann’s mayonnaise (mayonnaise is made primarily from eggs and oil), Aramark, which supplies food to big companies, colleges and prisons, and McDonald’s, which pledged to buy two million eggs produced without battery cages (one million cage-free and one million enriched colony housing eggs) each month.

Hellmann’s light mayo already uses 3.5 million pounds of cage-free eggs per year (about 30 million eggs). The company is also in the process of converting its regular mayo to cage-free eggs. Hellmann’s has pledged to use 100 percent cage-free eggs by 2020. Aramark purchases approximately 30 million shell eggs annually in the United States. Currently, eggs from cage-free hens are optional for Aramark clients. The company collaborated with the Humane Society on a plan to source all of its shell eggs from cage-free hens by the end of 2014.

According to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), chickens are among the most abused animals on the planet. There are no federal laws that protect chickens from abuse. More than 8 billion chickens are killed in the U.S. each year and nearly 300 million are raised for their eggs. PETA and the Humane Society have led the charge for cage-free chicken practices. Currently, there is no legal definition for cage-free facilities. But, generally, battery cages are not used and hens usually have room to walk around and extend their wings. Hens are often still debeaked to prevent pecking each other, and facilities remain crowded, but not as packed as conventional tiered-cage facilities.

Dr. Michael Appleby, a poultry welfare expert, writes, “Battery cages present inherent animal welfare problems, most notably by their small size and barren conditions. Hens are unable to engage in many of their natural behaviors and endure high levels of stress and frustration. Cage-free egg production, while not perfect, does not entail such inherent animal welfare disadvantages and is a very good step in the right direction for the egg industry.”

Numerous studies indicate cage-free hens contribute to a safer food supply, and reputable independent research organizations like the Pew Commission have urged agribusiness to phase out inhumane egg production practices. Hen housing is the focus of proposed federal legislation that would replace state-level guidelines. And there’s a relatively new player in the cage-free versus battery cage debate: enriched colony housing.

Enriched colony housing systems have at least double the space of conventional housing systems, giving hens a 4-by-12-foot space with enrichments including scratch areas, perches and a nest box as opposed to current guidelines, which give each hen 67-72 square inches of space. The conventional battery cage space is void of enrichments and deny chickens natural behaviors, like nesting. Battery cages are made of lines of similar cages connected together, sharing common divider walls. The battery cages are controversial among animal welfare advocates due to crowded, abusive conditions. Enriched housing still uses caging; however, enriched colony cages allow chickens to exhibit some of their natural behaviors. 

“[E]nriched cages provide space for them to lie down, spread their wings and turn around, as well as offering nests, perches and scratching areas,” Temple Grandin, a member of American Humane Certified’s scientific advisory committee, said in a release announcing the American Humane Association’s approval of enriched housing as a humane alternative to conventional cages. “This is the direction that producers need to take, as they have successfully already done in Europe.”

At the same time that McDonald’s decided to buy one million cage-free eggs per month, the company announced it would also buy another one million eggs per month from egg producers using enriched colony housing. McDonald’s wouldn’t be able to meet customer demand for eggs solely through cage-free eggs even if it bought all the cage-free eggs produced in the U.S., according to Don Thompson, McDonald’s president. McDonald’s buys about 2 billion eggs annually just for Egg McMuffins alone. Approximate U.S. egg production is 75 billion eggs annually, 5.7 percent of which are cage-free (about 4.27 billion eggs).

Egg Bill opponents, Egg Farmers of America, issued a statement earlier this year citing data that found “Hens in enriched colonies experienced increased leg and wing fractures.” The press release also cited a study that indicated salmonella enteritidis is transmitted at a higher rate in hens not housed in conventional cages.

Current battery cage systems often rely on conveyor belts to carry food to the caged chickens and additional belts to carry away waste from beneath the chickens’ cages. Opponents to cage-free methods claim that chickens not housed in conventional cages would pose a greater salmonella enteritidis risk to humans since there’s no effective way to remove waste. Chicken waste in cage-free hen houses is usually removed manually, by workers. “People tend to forget the reason we put chickens in cages in the 1950s was not only for the chicken’s welfare but from a human health standpoint,” Chet Utterback, manager of the University of Illinois poultry farm, expained to the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. But caged chickens who spend their lives confined tightly together without access to natural light, often resort to cannibalism. And antibiotics are routinely given to caged hens due to unsanitary conditions. This leads to the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that threaten public health.

A bill backed by the Humane Society and United Egg Producers that failed in 2012 was reintroduced earlier this year (HR 1731), and still isn’t likely to pass. But, it did start a conversation among hen producers. The proposal supports the enriched colony housing systems that are favored in Europe instead of battery cages without enrichments that are the norm in the U.S. now.

United Egg Producers and the Humane Society collaborated on the Egg Bill after the Humane Society was able to help get Proposition Two passed in California. Prop Two requires that by January 2015, all eggs sold in California come from hens able to stand up, lie down, turn around and extend their limbs without touching each other or the sides of an enclosure. Since Prop Two passed, Ohio, Michigan, Oregon, Washington and Arizona have followed suit with similar laws. United Egg Producers didn’t support Proposition Two, but it supports the unlikely-to-pass federal legislation, HR 1731, in order to prevent the egg industry in California from collapsing if egg producers flee to less regulated states as a result. “If one state has to abide by this and states across the border don’t, producers could move there,” Chad Gregory, president of United Egg Producers, told the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. “If we can’t pass this bill this year, by January 2015, the California egg industry is out of business,” Gregory added about HR 1731. “Ohio, the second-largest producing state, and Michigan are out of business by 2020. We want this to pass so we have a future.”

The deal United Egg Producers worked out with the Humane Society supports transitioning to enriched colony systems in the U.S. over 15 years. According to United Egg Producers, the federal bill will level the field across the country, rather than seeing egg producers move out of states like California and Michigan.  

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