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?