Sep17

Open Letter to McDonalds from Farmers on Decision to Change to Cage-Free Eggs

 

On Wednesday, September 9th egg farmers across this nation read with great interest McDonald's press release on the decision to transition to cage-free eggs. As a major buyer of shell eggs, you have the right to outline your specifications, but in claiming the transition was to provide more humane and better quality eggs, you have damaged the majority of egg farmers nationwide and have put on alert the entire agricultural community.

 

When you became co-sponsors of the Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply, the results did not conclude that cage-free eggs are produced more humanely, nor are they better quality. In effect you threw those scientists and the egg farmers who believed in you “under the bus”. Every egg farmer knows that increasing the population size of a flock of chickens increases the stress on those chickens due to the establishment of a “pecking order” among the chickens.  The behavior inherent in chickens is to determine the social standing of the individual hens through “pecking” each other.  The individual chicken lower in the social order is pecked the most.  When chickens are housed in conventional cages with 6 chickens, the establishment of this pecking order is minimized compared to thousands of chickens in a cage-free environment.  Imagine the chicken on the lower end of the pecking order among a population of thousands compared to only six chickens.

 

Concerning the claims from McDonald's about improving the quality of food, consider the food safety concerns reported on with cage-free eggs. The Journal Poultry Science in 2011 [90, pp. 1586-1593] published "Comparison of shell bacteria from unwashed and washed table eggs harvested from caged laying hens and cage-free floor-housed laying hens."  This study found that the numbers of bacteria on eggs was lower in housing systems that separated hens from manure and shavings. Conventional cages allow the feces to drop through the screen floor whereas in cage-free systems, the eggs are laid in the same general area for manure.  The potential for contamination is increased.

 

These results were confirmed 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 state "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 (pathogenic bacteria) on free-range eggs as compared to battery caged eggs."

 

You may congratulate yourselves on this new policy, and animal activists will mark their score cards as accomplishing another defeat for egg farmers. The egg farmers themselves are wondering why anyone would want to revert to the former ways of producing eggs that was more stressful for the chicken and may compromise the quality and food safety of the eggs for their consumers.

There will some who oppose this viewpoint and will try to marginalize our association or me personally.  So, for the record, the National Association of Egg Farmers has 277 egg farmers as members.  That’s among the largest of all national egg associations.  Most are small family farms ranging from one managing 8,000 chickens to others with greater than 5 million chickens.  Other groups have more chickens in their member base, but the larger farmers who can weather the transition are gleeful to see the smaller farmers leave the business and the markets they’ve established.  For me personally, I have served the egg industry for nearly 35 years in executive capacities.  Initially I was the Senior Vice President at United Egg Producers (UEP) before moving to London, England to serve as Director General of the International Egg Commission.  After returning to the U.S., UEP invited me back to head up their Washington, DC office.  I left of my own volition in 2004 when I saw upper management making decisions that I considered injurious to some egg farmers. 

Ken Klippen, President, National Association of Egg Farmers