Why is the truth about Cage-Free Egg Production Not Resonating with Consumers/Lawmakers?


The European parliament recently decided it was time to ban all cages for laying hens.  They were bowing to the pressures from the animal activists, in particular Compassion in World Farming (CIWF). Last week National Egg Farmers reminded us that Ken Klippen addressed the concerns about caging layers with the leaders at CIWF who could not withstand the overwhelming scientific evidence supporting conventional cages.  CIWF stopped pressuring egg farmers to switch to cage-free and switched to pressuring lawmakers. 

Two and one-half years ago, Dr. Vincent Guyonnet an international poultry consultant explained in an article featured in WATTAgNet that consumer beliefs that cage-free egg production automatically leads to higher layer welfare do not stand up to scrutiny. So, why are certain egg farmers in the U.S. and their associations siding with HSUS in pushing legislation for cage-free eggs?


Today, more alternative cage-free systems are being used and these allow hens more opportunities to express natural behaviors such as nests, perches and a scratching area, yet these alternatives are not without welfare, and other, issues.


Dr. Guyonnet noted that dominant hens can easily prevent other birds from accessing perches or nests, and aggressive behaviors are more common. Bone fractures, especially of the keel bone, are more frequent when birds misjudge the distance between perches or to the floor. In a study in Canada, the incidence of fracture of the keel bone was twice as high in cage-free systems than in conventional cages. 


He stated the quality of the air, in terms of dust particles and ammonia levels, is also more variable in cage-free systems. In the U.S., a field study showed that cumulative mortality at 78 weeks in an aviary system was more than double that in either conventional or enriched cages. Mortality in free-range systems was also higher than in any other housing systems. 


One of the basic principles of welfare, stated Dr. Guyonnet, is the close relationship between welfare and good health. If consumers imagine cage-free systems as a few hens casually walking through green pastures, the reality is quite different. 


A meta-analysis of 14 studies with free-range hens showed less than 50 percent of the flock going outside, and instances were recorded of less than 10 percent of the birds outside. In addition, the distribution of the birds outside is not uniform and most birds stay near the barns. 

This causes a more intensive use of the range near the barns, increasing the risks for parasites and the accumulation of nitrogen and phosphorus in soils. The use of the range depends also on the climatic conditions, with fewer birds outside if windy, rainy or warm (temperature above 17 C). 


Access to the range also increases the risks of parasites, such as coccidia, roundworms and red mites. Finally, wildlife predators greatly impact on the welfare of free-range birds. A study conducted last year at the University of California-Davis showed that the main causes of mortality for free-range hens were predation (52 percent), feather pecking and cannibalism (20 percent) and diseases (16 percent).   


We have now more experience with alternative housing systems (furnished cages, aviary and free-range) in Europe and North America, in experimental and field studies said Dr. Guyonnet. He said we know that different housing systems have the potential to impact differently the four aspects of animal welfare. 


What we don’t know is why aren’t these facts showing caged layers improves welfare, health, and reduces climate change resonating with lawmakers and consumers asked Ken Klippen? National Egg Farmers continues to “shout out loud” that conventional cages are the preferred method of producing eggs, but certain egg farmers and their associations are negating that effort. How long before only a few egg farmers with the needed capital capture the remaining egg market for cage-free eggs only?




California Prop 12 Will Not Lead to Better Hen Welfare, Better Food Safety, and Negatively Impact Worker Safety and Climate Change

It is likely many will applaud the new Chapter 10 rules for California Title 3 “The Regulation on Animal Confinement”, but National Egg Farmers on June 2, 2021 submitted official comments to state officials demonstrating that implementing the new rule will have the opposite of its intended effect by jeopardizing human health, worker safety, climate change, and with less humane conditions for chickens. National Egg Farmers urged the California Department of Food and Agriculture to recognize its understanding of animal husbandry and its support of the California Health and Safety Code to correct this proposed action by urging the legislature to amend the law and allow the continued use of conventional cages for egg laying chickens. (http://www.cdfa.ca.gov/ahfss/pdfs/regulations/AnimalConfinement1stNoticePropReg_05252021.pdf


Below is a partial of National Egg Farmers’ comments [outlined (a) through (d)]:


(a)   Human Health Concerns Jeopardized by CDFA Proposal:

The attention focused on cage-free eggs in the news has spawned a spate of backyard poultry flocks with concerns being expressed for years by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) of contamination with the pathogen Salmonella by this hobby or enterprise producing eggs.

In 2021 the CDC reported 163 people became ill in 43 states most likely from their backyard poultry. https://www.cdc.gov/salmonella/backyardpoultry-05-21/index.html

In 2020 over 1,700 people were sickened – https://www.cdc.gov/salmonella/backyardpoultry-05-20/index.html.

In 2019 over 1,100 people were sickened – https://www.cdc.gov/salmonella/backyardpoultry-05-19/index.html.

In 2018, over 340 people were sickened – https://www.cdc.gov/salmonella/backyard-flocks-06-18/index.html.

In 2017 over 1100 people were sickened – https://www.cdc.gov/salmonella/live-poultry-06-17/index.html.


(b)   Food safety concerns resulting from CDFA proposal.

The US Animal Health Association October 17, 2017 Report stated: “Ascarids (round worms) are increasingly being found in cage-free operations with the concern being the possibility of a consumer finding an egg with a roundworm contained inside. Most all cage-free egg producers have had such an occurrence.” Chickens pick up roundworms when they come into contact with infected feces on the ground. In the Journal Food Control published a study June 17, 2014 entitled "Microbiological Contamination of Shell Eggs Produced in Conventional and Free-Range Housing Systems" The conclusions show why cages became the preferred method of producing safer eggs: "Battery caged hens (conventional cages) are standing on wire slats that allow feces to fall to a manure collection system beneath the hens.  Conversely, free-range hens (cage-free) laid their eggs in nest boxes on shavings and the eggs remained in contact with hens, shavings and fecal material until they are collected.  The longer contact time with free-range hens, shavings and feces would explain the higher enterobacteriaceae counts on free-range eggs as compared to battery caged eggs."


(c)   Worker Safety affected by the CDFA proposal.

The proposed action by the CDFA claims benefits to human health, worker safety, or the State’s environment. When CDFA says this proposal does not directly impact human health and welfare of California residents, worker safety, or the State’s environment, it is in error. A study conducted by the Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply reported that the cage-free system had dust levels 8-10 times higher than other systems such as conventional cages. In addition, the cage-free system resulted in high worker exposure to endotoxin dust particles and reduced lung function by the end of a shift.


(d)  CDFA Proposal Conflicts with Biden’s Efforts to Curb Climate Change

President Joe Biden recently released his full budget request for fiscal 2022, detailing his plans to ramp up spending at the US Department of Agriculture for climate research and agricultural adaptation while also increasing spending for environmental regulation at the Environmental Protection Agency and Interior Department. The budget includes both President Biden's annual spending requests for departments and agencies as well as the sweeping, longer-term proposals under his American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan to address climate change, build roads and other infrastructure and reduce economic inequality. The $29.9 billion in budget authority that Biden is requesting for FY22 at USDA includes $914 million earmarked for climate research and resilience programs as well as clean energy.


The California Title 3 proposal reportedly does not conflict with any “Comparable Federal Regulations/Mandated by Federal Law or Regulations”. Will CDFA modify the enacted California Title 3 on animal confinement to be in alignment with the Biden Administration’s efforts on climate change with climate-smart agriculture?  Producing eggs in conventional egg systems (cages) generates less ammonia and particulate matter (PM 2.5 and PM 10) than cage-free systems such as proposed by California Title 3.  Manure belt conventional cages had a mean average for all the collections taken at 0.00012 lb./hen/day compared to aviary (cage-free) at 0.00049 lb./hen/day (4 times more ammonia in cage-free compared to conventional manure belt removal).  PM2.5 for conventional manure belt systems was 2.8 mg/hen/day compared to cage-free aviary at 12.3 (again more than 4 times more in cage-free) and PM10 for conventional manure belt systems was 20.3 mg/hen/hen compared to 124.4 for cage-free (more than 6 times for cage-free). 



Air Quality Expert Says We Cannot Solve Climate Issue by Our Diets

Dr. Frank Mitloehner, University of California-Davis and an expert in air quality, says science shows that if a meat-eater decided to go vegan for one year, it would reduce that persons’ carbon footprint by just 0.8 metric tons of greenhouse gases.   “In contrast, one single transatlantic flight per passenger would be 1.6 metric tons of greenhouse gases,” he says. “That means you have to go vegan for two years to make up for the emissions that are put out when you fly to Europe once.” And, he says another study found that if the entire country participated in meatless Mondays…”that would lead to 0.3 percent reduction of our carbon footprint in this county. They also looked at the extreme what would happen theoretically if all 330 million Americans went vegan, that would lead to a reduction 2.6 percent.” Mitloehner says these potential reductions in our carbon footprint are minor compared to the reductions that could be achieved by reducing emissions generated by fossil fuels.


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