Animal protection groups argue it definitely is: Birds that are not confined to small wire cages can at least spread their wings and engage in natural behaviors like dust-bathing and perching, even if they never see the light of day.
But egg producers and researchers caution that the switch is not as simple as just opening those cage doors — and that mobility brings with it a new set of concerns for chickens’ welfare that most farmers have never confronted.
A major 2015 study of three different hen-housing systems found that mortality was highest among birds in cage-free aviaries and that they also had more keel bone problems. READ MORE
Nestlé purchases almost 500,000 pounds of eggs annually, but says it is dedicated to working with Canadian farmers to make this transition by 2025.
“Canadian farmers are important to us, and in addition to eggs, we also purchase approximately $44 million worth of dairy products every year. Working alongside Canadian farmers is an essential part of our commitment to the health, care and welfare of animals,” Catherine O’Brien, senior vice president, corporate affairs says.
The pledge to use 100 per cent Canadian cage-free eggs is part of Nestlé’s global commitment on farm animal welfare, launched in 2012 and strengthened in 2014. As part of the commitment, the company outlined its plan to eliminate specific farming practices, like tail docking for cattle and pigs, gestation crates for pigs and veal crates. Nestlé works with World Animal Protection, a global animal welfare organization, to assess its suppliers against these commitments.
“[Nestlé's] commitment to move to cage-free eggs will have a huge positive impact on the lives of hundreds of thousands of hens," Josey Kitson, executive director for World Animal Protection Canada says. "Unlike conventional barns, cage-free systems allow hens to move around freely, perch and lay their eggs in a nest box. World Animal Protection has been pleased to support Nestlé’s work to improve the lives of farm animals. We applaud Nestlé Canada’s commitment to hens today and their ongoing efforts to give other farm animals better lives as well.”
Nestlé is developing pilot projects with its suppliers and World Animal Protection to establish a roadmap for sourcing cage-free eggs in Europe and the rest of the world.
McDonald’s announcement a year ago spurred a tidal wave through the food industry. Around 200 companies, including every major fast food chain and many major brands, have said they will go cage-free. Most of them target 2025 for completing the transition.
The Fortune article cites results from Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply (CSES) research that examined three different hen housing systems – conventional cage, enriched colony and cage-free – and concluded there are positive and negative trade-offs with each.
Food beat writer Beth Kowitt cites that the CSES study considered the housing systems as a whole – worker health, animal health, food affordability, food safety and environmental impact, while activist groups focus solely on animal welfare. An excerpt: In the end, science wasn’t the deciding factor. The study intentionally excluded one component – consumer sentiment – and that turned out to be the most important of all. The phrase “enriched cage” means nothing to the average person. So if McDonald’s had shifted to that option, it wouldn’t get any credit from consumers. “Science was telling us enriched, but when talking with the consumer, they had no clue what enriched was,” says Hugues Labrecque, who runs the egg business that serves McDonald’s at Cargill. Once that became clear, cage-free became the inevitable consensus.
In a Forbes op-ed, contributor Steve Banker, who covers logistics and supply chain management, cites the Fortune article and analyzes what will have to happen in the marketplace in order for McDonald’s to meet its cage-free commitment by 2025. He concludes, “McDonald’s shows us that companies have a chance to do ‘good,’ where ‘good’ is defined in a way that resonates with their customer base….”
In a Forbes article back in May, “Supermarket Guru” Phil Lempert noted there currently is no United States Department of Agriculture legal definition for “cage-free” and that, “…transparency of what the term actually means will anger many as they discover their imagery of a happy-go-lucky hen running through the field is far from the truth.”
People with strong feelings about hen housing tend to bypass scientific studies such as that conducted by CSES. Food companies want to give customers what they want regardless of the science.
There are a number of barriers to consumers integrating scientific information into their decision-making process. The influence of group values, confirmation bias, scientific illiteracy, the tribal nature of online communication and other factors all pose challenges to successfully introducing technical information into the social conversation about food and agriculture.
Many of the barriers can be overcome by following the formula developed through CFI’s research. Establishing shared values opens the door for technical information to be introduced into the conversation. It begins by first identifying and then communicating values from a credible messenger. Only then can incorporating technical information be viewed as trustworthy, building on a message platform that encourages informed decision-making.
Building trust is a process. Authentic transparency and continued engagement will encourage objective evaluation of scientific information that supports informed decision-making. Encouraging informed decision-making requires meeting people in the communities where the discussions are taking place, acknowledging their scepticism and committing to long-term engagement.
The Center for Food Integrity
CFI is a not-for-profit organization whose members and project partners represent the diversity of today’s food system, from farmers and food companies to universities, non-governmental organizations to retailers and food processors.
Visit foodintegrity.org for more information.
The rapid escalation in cage-free sourcing announcements from fast-food and quick serve restaurants in recent months has become concerning. The words “cage-free” have become a marketing gimmick, and less a about the welfare of laying hens.
Opponents of animal agriculture will look upon this tidal wave as a win for animal welfare, and continually claim that these restaurant chains are answering consumer concerns over hen housing. But, I suspect that most food businesses are, for the most part, bowing to pressure placed on them from animal activist groups.
Releasing a cage-free commitment announcement has essentially become an insurance policy for a company against having its name associated with disturbing undercover videos or other forms of negative press and social media backlash.
Until recently, this battle hasn’t affected individual farmers in Canada to a great extent. It’s provided an opportunity for some to expand or transition and supply what is still considered a niche market. However, when major grocery store chains follow suit, the entire egg industry is going to be affected — and so is the average consumer.
Restaurant and foodservice providers can make blanket statements about sourcing one type of egg because it’s too complicated for them to offer, for example, a breakfast sandwich made with either an egg that’s cage-free, conventional, organic, enriched or free-range housing – it’s confusing and a logistical nightmare for their supply chains. Whether a consumer is actively choosing a particular restaurant because the eggs are cage-free or not is a moot point when virtually every chain offers the same egg option. For a consumer, the decision of where to eat becomes a matter of convenience, price, and taste.
However, the grocery store is still where a consumer can make a conscious decision on what type of egg to buy. But that may change. In mid-March grocery members of the Retail Council of Canada(RCC), including Loblaw Companies Limited, Metro Inc., Sobeys Inc., and Wal-Mart Canada Corp., announced they are “voluntarily committing to the objective of purchasing cage-free eggs by the end of 2025” (see page 6).
No longer is the cage-free issue a way for a company to differentiate itself within a competitive marketplace, it’s now on a path to become the majority. There’s no doubt that cage-free housing offers improved animal welfare compared to conventional housing, however a multi-year intensive study by the Coalition for a Sustainable Egg Supply (CSES) determined that when all factors of sustainability were examined, including important parameters such as food affordability and environmental impact, cage-free systems did not reign supreme. The CSES study determined that enriched colony housing offered the best for the hen, farmer and consumer – yet it’s a system that is rarely mentioned by restaurants and retailers.
The Egg Farmers of Canada (EFC) hope to change this. It’s not about pitting one system against another – it’s about providing the consumer and retailers with choices, and keeping eggs an affordable source of high-quality protein.
There’s still time to turn the tide – but it’s going to be a battle the Canadian egg industry will be fighting for the next several years at least.
May 25, 2016 - Recognized welfare outcome assessments within farm assurance schemes have shown a reduction in feather loss and improvement in the welfare of UK cage-free laying hens, according to the findings of a study from the AssureWel project by the University of Bristol, RSPCA and the Soil Association. READ MORE
March 10, 2016 -A&W Food Services of Canada Inc. has announced a major commitment to become the first national quick service restaurant in Canada to serve eggs from hens raised in better cage-free housing. According to a company press release, the company expects to achieve this goal within two years. "A&W has already established its leadership role by being the first and only quick service restaurant chain to serve eggs from hens in enriched housing and raised without the use of antibiotics," the company said. "Currently, there are no open barn housing options available that meet A&W's supply needs and allow for an antibiotic-free environment."
A&W is committing to improving and redesigning housing for egg laying hens, and will source eggs from hens raised without the use of antibiotics while simultaneously advancing the best practices for egg laying hens.
February 18, 2016 - The owner of Jack Astor's and Canyon Creek restaurants will soon start serving eggs laid by hens not raised in cages.
SIR Corp, the owner of the two restaurant chains and several others, announced February 18 all 64 of its restaurants will make the shift by September.
The promise comes after public pledges by several other companies to start dishing up only cage-free eggs as well, including Tim Hortons, McDonald's, and Starbucks. However, most of these companies
say it will take between four and 10 years to make the change.
February 5, 2016 - Egg Farmers of Canada (EFC) is pleased to announce, on behalf of the more than 1,000 Canadian egg farms, the commencement of a coordinated, systematic, market-oriented transition from conventional egg production toward other methods of production for supplying eggs. This collective approach will take hen welfare, human health, other resource implications, environmental impact and food production sustainability all into account.
"In response to the best available scientific research and in light of changing consumer preferences, I'm pleased that the entire industry has agreed to an orderly transition plan that will further diversify our production practices," said Peter Clarke, Chairman of Egg Farmers ofCanada. "We see immense potential to leverage research and innovation to achieve the best possible outcomes across all factors of sustainable food production, which includes everything from environmental impacts to food affordability," he added.
This major shift will yield an almost 50% restructuring in as early as 8 years from now and includes a commitment to cease the installation of any new conventional housing. Presently about 90% of egg production is in conventional housing. The other 10% or so is in enriched housing, free-run, aviary or free-range. Under the plan, to be overseen by a national working group in collaboration with the entire egg supply chain, the industry expects to achieve about a 50-50% mix in 8 years, about 85% (alternative production) in 15 years. All production would be in enriched housing, free-run, aviary or free-range by 2036 assuming the current market conditions prevail.
Because the market, affordability for consumers, pullet rearing and other supply chain aspects, resource implications, and a number of construction and equipment realities all must be factored in, these projections represent a realistic forecast of what is achievable. The steady, coordinated and cross-supply chain approach will be executed with the utmost respect for ensuring supply—both that there are no supply shortages and that there is no production of eggs for which there is no market—while pursuing production diversification.
Alongside this announcement, the industry hopes to discuss with stakeholders and consumers the benefits of enriched housing, which do not seem to be well or widely understood outside of the industry. These include food safety, the minimization of mortality, cannibalism, and other aggressive behaviours (hens flock together and enjoy small groups), ensuring adequate feed and water for all (hens have a pecking order), human health and the lowest possible environmental impacts.
"Egg Farmers of Canada is proud to represent egg farmers across all systems and to offer consumers choice when it comes to eggs," saidPeter Clarke, Chairman of Egg Farmers of Canada. "We are about to take our already high performing industry and best practices in production to even higher levels."
The welfare, health, production, resource and other tradeoffs between each production method was further assessed by the Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply's four-year, commercial-scale study that looked at the sustainability of three different types of hen housing (conventional, aviary and enriched). The study, widely supported by a range of stakeholders, illustrates the complexity involved in evaluating different production methods. For example, it showed that while one production type might have an even higher impact on hen welfare, it also has impacts in terms of human health, the environment, and the economy of the sector that must be considered.
"Egg Farmers of Canada is committed to research, both around production practices and consumer preferences, and to ensuring evidence-based decision-making when it comes to industry practices," Mr. Clarke concluded.
The Canadian egg industry's investments in production method research have shown that enriched housing is a production means that provides the benefits afforded by conventional production and additional features. Enriched housing allows hens to exhibit specific behaviours which may include perching, scratching, foraging, dust bathing and nesting. The industry looks forward to discussing these important aspects, and the broader transition plan, with any and all stakeholders as this process unfolds.
In September 2014, A&W announced itself as the first national fast food restaurant in North America to serve eggs from hens fed a vegetarian diet. A month later, the chain became the first in North America to serve chicken raised without the use of antibiotics. In March 2015, McDonald’s also announced that it would switch to chickens raised without most antibiotics, and in April, raised pay for workers at company-owned stores, which represent about 10 per cent of its American locations.
As of early September, McDonalds in Canada and the U.S. followed up these statements with another one – this time the surprising sourcing commitment to transition to 100 per cent cage-free eggs (known as free-run in Canada) over the next 10 years.
McDonald’s Canada says it will begin this transition immediately by sourcing five per cent free-run eggs now. And to ensure a sustainable supply of free-run eggs, McDonald’s Canada stated in its press release that it “will work with industry stakeholders to identify the best path forward.” There are more than 1400 McDonald’s outlets in Canada with more than 85,000 employees from coast to coast.
For over ten years, McDonald’s has been pressured by the Humane Society of the United States to make this move. Other companies such as Subway and Starbucks had already committed to switching to free-run eggs, but neither has presented a timeline. We asked McDonald’s Canada why it has decided to go free-run, instead of sourcing eggs from enriched cage systems for example. Was it pressure from animal rights groups, an attempt to match what competitors are doing or to boost slumping sales?
Media spokesperson Adam Grachnik says “I can tell you that at McDonald’s Canada, we are always listening to our guests and our announcement on September 9th was about updating Canadian consumers about the progress we are making on a topic many of our guests have told us matters to them. This move is another step in our continuing journey to evolve our entire food experience to meet our guests’ changing expectations.” Grachnik adds “We know our guests care that the food they eat is made with responsibly-sourced, high-quality ingredients which is why we are making the move towards sourcing only 100 per cent Canadian cage-free eggs for our Canadian restaurants. McDonald’s has been actively engaged in this topic since 2003 when we were the first food service company to adopt a standard for hen housing systems, which provided more space per bird than the official industry standard.”
McDonald’s is part of a group called the Coalition for a Sustainable Egg Supply (CSES) (http://www2.sustainableeggcoalition.org/research). This spring, the group released results from a three-year study showing that free-run systems have some disadvantages relating to both consumers and birds, and that they do not provide the highest sustainability scores, so we asked why McDonald’s went this way instead of with enriched cage systems, for example. Grachnik says the CSES research was done to better understand the impact of various hen housing systems on animal health and welfare, the environment, worker health, food safety and food affordability. “The goal of the research was not to identify a best hen housing system, but to instead help us better understand the benefits and potential drawbacks of a variety of hen housing systems. As we make this transition, we’ll use these insights to help identify opportunities and direct our focus on ways to improve cage-free hen housing systems.”
It seems that Egg Farmers of Canada (EFC, also a CSES member) is being consulted by McDonald’s now, but it’s unclear if the association was consulted before McDonald’s made their free-run announcement in early September. The association directed us to a statement on its website which says: “EFC, on behalf of Canada’s more than 1,000 farms, welcomes and accepts [McDonald’s] request for stakeholder and expert advice as they work through the important operational and financial details of converting their supply chain.” When asked for its take on why McDonald’s Canada went with free-run, whether other big chains in Canada will follow suit, the ten-year timeline feasibility and the challenges for farmers to switch to free-run, EFC again directed us to its website statement. “As further evidenced by the recent study by the CSES, each major production system—conventional, enriched, free run, free range, and aviary—has trade-offs across a wide variety of factors (e.g. costs, welfare, energy, human health, environment). Thus, we respect McDonald’s decision to leverage the research and transition over time and with the assistance of the North American industry.”
SUPPLY IN CANADA
Burnbrae Farms is the sole supplier of eggs for McDonald’s Canada. We spoke to President Margaret Hudson about whether her company was consulted before McDonald’s made their free-run announcement, and answer was yes. Hudson says Burnbrae was definitely part of the process and that the timeline is one Burnbrae felt it could achieve. Burnbrae has been producing free-run eggs for almost 20 years, and production has grown to being currently just under 10 per cent.
We asked whether Burnbrae is aiming for a certain amount of free-run production each year over the next ten years, and Hudson says “It will evolve as it makes sense, with our farms and contract farms. With such a long lead time, equipment needs to be replaced and it will be replaced with enough free-run equipment to meet McDonald’s needs. With that long of a timeline, I don’t see an issue.”
Will Burnbrae need to assist their contract farmers to deal with conversion costs? Hudson believes most farmers will be able to manage on their own. “We have a whole team of people whose job it is to interface with our farmer partners, and that will be a part of this,” she explains. “It’s an ongoing conversation. It’s a little more capital [for free-run] but not insurmountable. We are there if we are needed, but we don’t see that [our financial help] will be required.” Hudson notes that Burnbrae has farmed eggs for 70 years and served McDonald’s for over 30 years. “We’re excited about this process and working with them,” she says. “If this what they want for their customers, we are happy to move forward with them.”
SOUTH OF THE BORDER
In the U.S., McDonald’s already buys about 13 million cage-free eggs a year, but this represents only less than 1 per cent of the 2 billion eggs it purchases annually. That total is expected to rise as McDonald’s USA will begin offering some breakfast menu items all day starting in early October.
United Egg Producers (UEP, a cooperative representing about 95 per cent of all U.S. egg farmers) states that only about 6 per cent of the layers in that country are presently in cage-free facilities. UEP was not consulted before McDonald’s made this announcement. We asked President and CEO Chad Gregory how American McDonald’s restaurants will be able to access enough free-run eggs even in 10 years (because the U.S. lags behind on the adoption of enriched systems, let alone free-run) and he says he believes ten years is ample time for suppliers to convert.
“UEP supports consumer choice, and we respect the decision made by McDonald’s,” Gregory says in a general media statement. Further in the statement, he adds “Over the years, many evaluations of hen housing systems have been conducted, including…CSES, that compared three different hen housing environments. Both UEP and McDonald’s are members of CSES, and through this process, as well as through the ongoing counsel of UEP’s Scientific Advisory Committee, our members have gathered information about developments in hen housing and appropriate care for hens.”
It may be that all fast food chains in Canada and the U.S. – as well as other restaurants and food service outlets – will eventually all demand only free-run eggs. The days of buying eggs from hens housed in battery cages, whether those eggs are at the drive-thru or from your favourite grocery store, could be numbered.
A large increase in egg quotas combined with a new B.C. Egg Marketing Board (BCEMB) order increasing the minimum space/bird are forcing B.C. egg producers to consider how best to meet the new requirements.
Since the BCEMB has not outlawed caged egg production (as some U.S. states have done), some producers have chosen to simply add extra footage and extra cages to their barns and reduce the number of birds/cage. Others have decided to make a complete change in their operations.
Ken Vanderkooi of Kenettas Farms chose the latter option. Aug. 12th, a week before the first layer barn was to be populated, he invited industry to tour his brand new state-of-the-art multi-million dollar farm.
Not just the barns and equipment are new. Vanderkooi has been farming in poultry-dense Abbotsford but his new farm is located across the Fraser River where the nearest poultry barn is about a kilometre away.
“I am isolated over here but still only half an hour from Abbotsford,” Vanderkooi says, adding “after avian influenza hit the area in 2004, I said it wasn’t going to catch me a second time.”
He bought a second farm in Nanaimo on Vancouver Island (operated and now owned by his son, Dwayne) “to be away from all the farms here in the valley” but continued to farm in Abbotsford.
He almost waited too long to move the rest of his birds. Just over a month after starting to build the new farm, AI again surged through the Fraser Valley but, fortunately, he and most other local farmers escaped unscathed.
New Barn Features
The new farm includes two 40X450 foot layer barns and a 36X255-foot pullet barn. All three barns are built with the Octaform system with its food-grade PVC-finish.
“Octaform is completely sealed, Canadian Food Inspection Agency approved and cleans up a lot better than plywood,” says equipment supplier Leo Apperloo of United Agri Systems. “I expect the coating to last at least 15-20 years.”
The layer barns have tunnel ventilation with TPI shutter inlets instead of doors while the pullet barn has a two-stage ventilation system, also with TPI shutter inlets. New to B.C., the TPI inlets keep the tunnel ventilation system slimmer, eliminate the need for an outer alcove and better direct the air. When inlets first open, they direct the air towards the ceiling but when the system fully kicks in (400 cubic feet/minute), the shutter position forces the air to the floor maximizing airflow through the barn.
As isolated as the location is, as impressive as the buildings are, as innovative as the ventilation system may be, they pale in comparison to the equipment within: the Valli enriched colony system. Although Valli international sales manager Paolo Zazzeri notes there are already “many” units in the prairie provinces, this is the first in B.C.
Vanderkooi says his son Jon, who will run and eventually own the farm, selected the system.
“Jon is responsible for everything we have done here, including the barn design. He had seen the Valli system working in Italy and told me that’s what he really wanted,” he says. “I agreed as he has to be happy because he is the one working the system and the one who will eventually have to pay for it.”
Vanderkooi admits the system is unlikely to increase productivity but will improve livability, noting it meets the requirements of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and other animal welfare advocate groups.
“I believe this is where the industry’s future is,” he says.
The system includes 711 “colonies” in three tiers. Each colony is 10 feet long and 5.91 feet wide and designed to accommodate 72 birds, giving the entire system a total capacity of 51,192 layers. This gives the Vanderkoois plenty of room for future quota increases as their current quota holding is about 45,000 birds.
They can even increase their flock size well beyond 51,000 birds in future as the barns are tall enough to accommodate a fourth tier.
“We use heavy-duty steel construction so we can go up to 12 tiers if we need to,” Zazzeri states.
Each colony includes a feeding/living area with LED lighting and a darkened nesting area. The feeding area includes 12 cm of feeding space/bird and 15 cm of perch/bird. There is both a central feeding system and an external feed trough. In an interesting innovation, there is a perforated guard the birds step on as they access the feed trough. The perforations are intended to shorten the nails.
Strips hanging in the nesting area keep light to a minimum, a plastic mesh on the floor keeps birds from touching wire while they are laying and a cover on the outside grate prevents them from accessing the feed trough.
“If they’re not eating, they’re not defecating, so you cleaner eggs,” Zazzeri says.
The egg belt is 14 cm wide and guarded by an egg saver wire and shocker wire. The wires lift up several times a day to release the eggs onto the belt. The belt is programmed to move three times a day so the entire belt is filled even though 98 per cent of eggs are being laid in the small nesting section of each colony.
“The egg belt has capacity for two days lay although most farms do egg collections once a day,” Zazzeri states.
A manure dryer and blower unit running down the centre of the colony ensures manure is relatively dry. The manure belt has a support every foot and discharges into an external manure storage building.
“We have built enough storage so we only have to empty it once a year,” Vanderkooi says.
The pullet barn has 1332 rearing cages in three rows of three tiers each. Each cage measures 1000 X 705 mm and intended to hold 20 birds for a total capacity of 26,640 birds. Although the piping for the manure dryer has been installed, it is not being used.
“We are going to put at least one pullet flock through without the dryer and see how it goes,” Vanderkooi says.
Although this is the first such installation in the province, Apperloo says it will not be the last. Another is being installed in December and several other farmers have expressed serious interest.
“We have been incredibly busy,” Apperloo says, “with the change in regulations and today’s low interest rates, farmers are investing in new barns and new equipment. We have put in 40 aviaries in the last three years as well as conventional cages and the Valli enriched colony system.”
September 9, 2015 - As part of an ongoing journey to meet customers' changing expectations and preferences, McDonald's Restaurants of Canada Limited today announced that it will transition to sourcing 100 per cent Canadian cage-free eggs (produced in free-run systems) for its restaurants over the next 10 years.
"Our guests increasingly tell us they appreciate the efforts we go to in responsibly sourcing high quality ingredients," said John Betts, President and CEO, McDonald's Restaurants of Canada Limited. "Our decision to source 100 per cent Canadian cage-free eggs reinforces the focus we're placing on our food and menu to meet our guests' changing expectations, allowing them to feel even better about the food they enjoy at our restaurants."
"We're proud of the work we're doing with suppliers and farmers to further advance environmentally and socially conscious practices for the animals in our supply chain," said Marion Gross, Senior Vice President of McDonald's North America Supply Chain. "This is a bold move and we're confident in our ability to provide a quality, safe, and consistent supply."
On an annual basis, McDonald's Canada purchases approximately 120 million eggs from Canadian farmers to serve on its breakfast menu, which includes popular breakfast sandwiches, such as the Egg McMuffin®. With today's announcement, McDonald's Canada will immediately begin this transition by sourcing five per cent cage-free eggs. To meet the increased demand and ensure a sustainable supply of cage-free eggs, McDonald's Canada will work with industry stakeholders to identify the best path forward, while continuing to work within the Canadian supply management system.
"Animal welfare has always been important to us and our guests," said Rob Dick, Senior Director Supply Chain, McDonald's Canada. "Today's announcement is another milestone building on our work with industry experts and suppliers to improve the treatment of animals throughout our supply chain."
"We value our partnership and look forward to providing healthy, nutritious cage-free eggs for all McDonald's restaurants in Canada," said Margaret Hudson, President, Burnbrae Farms Limited. "While the way we produce eggs has changed since our great-grandfather founded the farm in 1893, our commitment to do what's right for Canadian consumers has never been stronger."
McDonald's has been actively engaged in this topic since 2003 when it became the first foodservice company to adopt a standard for hen housing systems, which provided more space per bird than the official industry standard. In 2010, McDonald's USA initiated research with the Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply (CSES) to better understand the impact of various hen housing systems on animal health and welfare, the environment, worker health, food safety and food affordability. This research was fundamental in helping better understand the benefits and potential trade-offs of various hen housing systems. As we make this transition, we will use these insights to help identify opportunities and direct our focus on ways to improve cage-free hen housing systems.
When California Prop2 went into effect in January it raised the question of just what are “cage free” eggs? The only consensus is that eggs produced by free-run and free-range birds, qualify and that standard laying cages do not. After that it starts to get murky. Are convertible standard cages considered “cage free”? What about colony cages and do furnished colony cages make a difference in definition? What about pasture pens or aviaries, or again does it depend on the design? It is much like the term “Factory Farm”; it depends on who is doing the defining. And it very much matters whether the term is being used for labelling purposes or production standards or marketing campaigns.
Canadian regulators do not define the term directly. They refer to organic standards. Nor do producer groups or retailers. The same applies to the few US state regulators where so-called ”cage bans” have been implemented. In California for example, the term is being used somewhat inappropriately. Under the new law, and contrary to public perception, cages are not banned. Instead, egg producers simply have to provide larger space in order to meet the state agriculture regulations in order to meet the very vague requirements under the HSUS inspired Proposition 2 ballot measure. Or at least until HSUS and company take their next step.
The state has not weighed-in on types of housing and neither has the Prop2 measure. In a February decision, a court of appeals judge upheld the measure arguing that the requirements “can be readily discerned using objective criteria” and that “a person of reasonable intelligence can determine the dimensions of an appropriate confinement that will comply with Proposition 2.”
The USDA, through its Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) verifies “cage free” claims when used on USDA inspected eggs. This claim indicates the eggs came from hens who were “never confined to a cage and have had unlimited access to food, water, and the freedom to roam” whether they are indoors or outdoors. But a “cage” is not defined.
HSUS and their Canadian branch HSIC has been a driving force in the “cage free” movement. But they are being cagey (pun intended) by not pinning themselves to a definition either.
They refer to “battery cages” in their literature but knowing the public doesn’t discern, they leave the impression that no cages are now used. According to their website, HSUS states: “As the term implies, hens laying eggs labeled as “cage-free” are uncaged inside barns. Unlike battery hens, cage-free hens are able to walk, spread their wings and lay their eggs in nests, vital natural behaviors denied to hens confined in cages.” And HSUS knows what it is doing. In January HSUS CEO Wayne Pacelle toured California to publicize Prop2 and promote “cage-free” adding further public confusion.
When HSUS formed a short-lived agreement with United Egg Producers on national standards in 2012, HSUS CEO Wayne Pacelle explained that HSUS believes in “practical, incremental reform” in animal welfare, and while a conversion to cage-free production would have been “ideal,” his organization “changed its position from “cage-free only” to colonies because the agreement exceeds all other housing regulations in the U.S. and abroad.” An even clearer statement was made two years earlier in a July 16, 2010 Position Statement Against Modified Cages for Laying Hens. A consortium of animal protection groups including HSUS, WSPA, and the Animal Welfare Institute stated: “The major animal protection organizations in the United States and European Union listed below that focus on the treatment of farm animals are opposed to modified cages, sometimes referred to as furnished, or so-called enriched cage, confinement of laying hens.”
And confusion continued when in February 2014 HSUS announced their new website, CageFreeCalifornia.com. “While Prop 2 does not specifically mention cages, it has the economic effect of facilitating the transition of the egg industry to cage free systems, the announcement read. “Some California producers are converting to colony cage systems, but The HSUS has never believed those systems are compliant with the standards set forth in Proposition 2,” the announcement added.
HSUS’s Canadian branch is a little more forthcoming. HSIC has partnered with the Vancouver Humane Society with their decade-old Chicken Out! Campaign designed in their words “to educate Canadian consumers about more humane alternatives to eggs produced by battery cage hens.” The campaign states that “… if you do choose to consume eggs, consider cage-free eggs. When you hear the term “cage-free” in Canada, it refers to one of three different types of production methods: free-run, free-range and organic. An enriched cage, while it does provide more space, is still a cage, and is not considered cage-free.” Aviary housing is not mentioned.
World Animal Protection (formerly WSPA) defines “cage-free” eggs as “those produced in housing systems which permit hens the opportunity to engage in natural behavior… they include free run (or cage-free), free range, and organic. On their Choose Cage-Free page, begun in Canada in 2012, WAP says: “Furnished cages are larger than battery cages… but the cages are still crowded and hens’ movement is still restricted… Some producers have already adopted furnished cages. Eggs from these systems may be labelled as comfort coop or nest-laid.” A fundraiser states, “while all these hens are guaranteed more space, some businesses have opted to simply use larger cages. Not cool, I know. But you can help. When you’re out shopping, make sure you’re still looking for cage-free eggs…”
The David Suzuki Foundation defines “cage-free” as “hens are not confined to battery cages, but that’s about it.” Adding: “You might see this claim on all three types of non-battery cage production eggs — free-run, free-range and organic.”
Egg Farmers of Canada, while not using the term “cage free”, very clearly explains conventional, colony and floor housing. The same will apply to the updated Recommended Code of Practice.
It gets even murkier when we get to “cage-free” certification standards.
There are many different third-party animal welfare certification organizations in Canada. And unlike industry and federal standards, each has their own specific criteria that must be met in order to be certified.
BCSPCA Certified and the Winnipeg Humane Society equivalent simply state that “caging of birds is prohibited.” No mention of colony cages or aviaries.
American Humane Certified is a program of American Humane Association and differentiates their certification for enriched colony cages and cage-free. For colony cages, each bird must be provided with at least 116 sq. inches and have access to perches and nest boxes. Cage-free birds “must have 1.25 square feet (180 square inches) of floor space”, as well as access to perches and nesting boxes.
Certified Humane, a program of U.S.-based Humane Farm Animal Care, also operates in Canada. The standards clearly state that “battery, furnished or enriched cages as well as lock back aviaries are prohibited.
Animal Welfare Approved is a program of the U.S.-based Animal Welfare Institute and likely has the highest standards. However, they only certify flocks of fewer than 500 birds and no type of cage or pen, indoors or outdoors, are permitted. Aviaries do not comply.
With no clear and consistent definition of “cage-free” there is wiggle room for challenges that lie ahead.
As consumers, retailers and the broader community continue to demand movement towards housing systems that place high value on offering improved behavioural opportunities for hens, it’s important to track measures related to their physical condition. Do the proposed solutions carry unintended consequences? What are the physiological and physical effects of more open housing systems?
As a benchmarking tool, researchers Mike Petrik, Michele Guerin and Tina Widowski have just published a study that gives a snapshot of commercial Ontario brown laying hens in cage and non-cage systems using three welfare indicators: keel bone fracture prevalence, feather scores and cumulative mortality. These three parameters are typically used to reflect some of the physical aspects of the welfare status of the hens.
Benchmarking welfare indicators from alternative housing systems is important to ensure that progress is made in improving their well-being. This is the first study in North America to compare housing systems on multiple farms as well as providing a more detailed assessment of keel fractures during the life of a flock.
There are 64 farms in Ontario housing brown hens in cages with an average flock size of 9,965, while 27 farms average 9,410 hens per flock in floor-housed systems. For their study, Petrik et al. recruited nine commercial farms that housed brown hens in cages and eight farms using floor systems. Only brown hens were included because there are no white hen flocks housed using floor systems in Ontario at present.
All hens were beak trimmed; caged pullets were grown in caged housing and floor flocks were grown in single-tier floor pullet houses. All birds were fed a commercial diet that was adjusted to individual flock requirements.
Hens were sampled four times over the course of lay, at 20, 35, 50 and 65 weeks of age. At each visit, 50 hens were weighed and palpated for evidence of healed keel bone fractures. Feather scores were assigned based on evaluation of the neck, back, breast and vent. The daily records maintained by the farmer provided mortality data.
Keel fracture prevalence was significantly higher for the floor housing compared to conventional housing. As birds neared the end of lay at 65 weeks, the fracture rate was 54.7% compared to 40% for caged flocks. These floor-flock figures were comparable to those for floor birds in Europe (45 to 86%) but the conventional numbers were greater than those reported in conventional cages in the UK (26 to 30%). This might be due to the difference in cage size (483 cm2 in North America vs. 550 cm2 in Europe) that may result in more piling behaviour, or possibly cage design or nutritional factors.
Keel fractures are often attributed to traumatic injury. Five of the eight floor barns in this study had no perches; the researchers suggested that fixed perches were not a contributing factor to the incidence of keel bone fractures in these flocks.
While most studies evaluate keel fractures at the end of lay, this study points to fractures occurring much earlier in production. In this study, the fracture prevalence increased substantially from 20 to 50 weeks in both floor and cage systems, after which the incidence stabilized. This is a serious concern because fractures occuring early in lay results in a higher potential for chronic pain over the course of production.
Flock-level mean feather score was not significantly affected by the housing system, possibly due to the hens having been beak trimmed. Cumulative mortality tended to be lower (1.29%) for cage housing than floor housing (2.13%), but the figure for floor housing was much lower than in other studies, which have indicated that non-cage systems put hens at a much higher risk for feather pecking, cannibalism and mortality for various reasons. These feather condition and mortality results showed that these Ontario flocks performed really well.
Mean body weight was lower but more uniform in floor housed flocks compared to cage housed flocks, possibly due to a higher activity level and the need to search for feed. Heavier birds had more fractures, so in a chicken or egg type of question, did heavier birds have more keel fractures because of their weight, or were they heavier because of less activity due to the fracture? Production parameters and behaviour were not evaluated in this study.
More work is indicated to identify specific risk factors and etiology of keel fractures, especially if non-cage housing becomes more common in North America. These findings indicate that younger hens, between 20 and 35 weeks of age, showed the highest incidence of keel bone fractures and should be the focus of future studies.
As the layer industry continues to evolve, the benchmarking of welfare indicators from alternative housing systems from this study will help to ensure that progress is being made to improve the well-being of the hens.
This research was funded by Egg Farmers of Canada and the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food. The researchers would like to thank participating egg farmers in Ontario for allowing access to their flocks and records.
Nearly two years ago, Canadian Poultry reported to you about the quest to enact historic national U.S. legislation relating to mandatory enriched cages for layer hens. That quest is over for now, but the move to larger, enriched cages and other welfare-related changes is inevitable in that country, according to some major industry players.
The so-called “Egg Bill” (The Egg Products Inspection Act Amendments of 2012) would have required enriched colony housing systems to be phased in at every commercial egg production facility in the U.S., over the 15 to 18 years after it was passed. Phase-in schedules would have been more rapid in California, consistent with an initiative there already approved by that state’s voters (Proposition 2, see sidebar).
The bill had formed out of lobbying efforts that were put forward over the previous few years by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), and was strongly supported by UEP (the United Egg Producers), a group which represents those who produce almost all U.S. eggs. It was also supported by hundreds of family farmers, other animal welfare groups such as the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (HSUS), major consumer groups like Consumer Federation of America and National Consumers League, and scientific groups such as the American Veterinary Medical Association and the Association of Avian Veterinarians. Dozens of media outlets - including heavy hitters the Chicago Tribune, New York Times and USA Today — were also in support.
Before we get into what happened and why, let’s review the bill. The cage systems proposed within it would have seen each egg‐laying hen have nearly double the amount of space (the majority of U.S. hens are currently mandated to have at least 67 square inches of space, but up to 50 million of them have just 48 square inches). The proposed legislation set a minimum of 124 square inches of space for white hens and 144 for brown. The bill also called for eventual environmental enrichments to be provided for all birds, including perches, nesting boxes and scratching areas that allow hens to express natural behaviors.
And that wasn’t all. There were requirements in the bill for labeling to inform consumers about production method. Feed-withdrawal or water‐withdrawal molting to extend the laying cycle would have been prohibited (a practice already prohibited under the UEP’s ‘Certified’ program). In addition, the bill included standards for euthanasia of egg‐laying hens that have been approved by the American Veterinary Medical Association, limits on ammonia levels in henhouses, and the prohibition of the transport and sale of eggs and egg products nationwide that don’t meet these requirements.
The HSUS had already been successful in 2008 in having phased-in roomier layer housing mandated in California. In 2010, a follow-up law was passed that applied the same provisions to out-of-state farmers who sell their eggs in California. (In 2013, Missouri’s Attorney General filed a lawsuit to fight that law.) HSUS was also making progress in other states with respect to getting more humane and natural hen and swine housing in place.
UEP threw its support behind a national legislative effort for several reasons. As UEP President Chad Gregory told Canadian Poultry in 2012, “We at the UEP felt it was time to do the right thing — that enriched cages are a more humane way to produce eggs, and that fighting this state-by-state or nationally was not the course of action that was best for our industry.” For a commodity that’s often shipped from state to state, uniform federal legislation would prevent egg producers from having to deal with contradictory and competing state legislation that was sure to spring up instead. Gregory explained at the time that “a growing patchwork of inconsistent state laws will restrict interstate movement of eggs, distort competition and put many farmers out of business. This is a very serious situation.”
Some farm groups fought the bill, concerned it would set a precedent for how all farm animals are managed. There were also concerns among egg farmers about the costs of transitioning to enriched cages. Gregory cited studies showing that enriched colony cages can be better for production than conventional cages. He countered worries over the cost of eggs going up with citing studies indicating enriched cages only add a modest operating cost increase over the current system, and since the changes would be phased in over the next 15 to 18 years — many during the normal course of replacing aged equipment.
By last year, the Egg Bill was known as The Egg Products Inspection Act of 2013. However, over the course of legislative negotiations as the Farm Bill (which it was part of) progressed, it was excluded. HSUS President Wayne Pacelle stated in a blog post in early 2014 that the Act was killed “because of the dysfunction of Congress, the blocking maneuvers of a small number of lawmakers, and bullying and lobbying by other sectors of animal agriculture.”
At this time, Gregory explains that UEP and HSUS have agreed not to extend any formal connection that existed during the bill’s consideration. “UEP remains committed to facilitating discussions that are needed to provide stability in the egg industry and to secure uniformity in egg production standards,” said Gregory. He said the organization now is focused on preparing its members, their customers and US consumers for potential changes in the egg market when new laws governing egg production, enacted after the passage of Proposition 2, taking effect in California in January 2015.
He adds, “Our members provided tremendous leadership in working to pass the Egg Bill and establish uniform national standards for hen housing. Enriched housing for egg-laying hens represents an important step forward for the egg farming community, and we applaud the voluntary efforts of many of our farmer-members to incorporate this housing into their farm operations.” Gregory said UEP is dedicated to partnering with its members, allied industry and other stakeholders to identify workable, long-term solutions that maintain the viability of the egg industry.
Cage-free developments from around the globe
In 2009, Michigan passed a law which, among other things, phases out battery cages for laying hens and gestation crates for breeding sows by 2019. In 2010, Ohio (the second-largest egg-producing state in the U.S.) declared a moratorium on permits for new battery cage facilities.
In February 2014, the government of Australia passed a law to ban battery cages in egg production and gestational crates for sows and beak trimming of chickens. This follows the action of the government of Tasmania late in 2013 to phase out gestational stalls and new battery cage facilities. Battery cages are being phased out in New Zealand, and have already been banned in Switzerland, Austria and Sweden.
In 2010, global food manufacturing giant Unilever stated it would switch all of the 350 million eggs it uses for Hellmann’s mayonnaise to those produced in cage-free facilities. The HSUS says other companies converting to cage-free eggs include Marriott International, Burger King, Compass Group, Aramark, and Sodexo.
Egg Farmers of Canada responds
We asked the Egg Farmers of Canada (EFC) for its thoughts on the UEP’s efforts over the last few years to move its producers towards larger, enriched cages. Specifically, we asked if EFC applauds this direction, whether it see UEP’s plans as a reasonable goal, and what it sees as the major challenges to having all egg production in enriched, larger cages or cage-free enriched facilities.
Alison Evans, EFC manager of corporate and public affairs, says “We continue to support ongoing research and assessment of all types of housing and the industry responds to changing consumer demand. Currently, EFC invests in the work of several Canadian researchers.”
She adds that “Furnished housing is increasingly being considered in many jurisdictions as an alternative to conventional cages. This is due, in large part, to the fact that the amenities typically included—perch, enclosed nesting areas, dustbath or scratchpad—provide opportunities for birds to express a greater variety of behaviour patterns. Whether it is at the farm (micro level) or macro (provincial or industry-wide level), any transition must be well-planned and orderly, taking into account all levels of the supply chain and customers, operations, costs and other implications.”
When asked if EFC has a goal for phasing out cages for layers in Canada, Evans says “There are many important reasons to house birds in cages—ranging from disease management to food safety to mitigation of aggressive behaviours…The EFC Code of Practice recommends reduced density as farmers purchase new cage housing and all egg producers must meet the density targets to pass the EFC ‘Animal Care Program,’ which is based on the Code of Practice.” She adds that some provinces are implementing policies that help farmers make decisions about retooling or installing new housing systems.
When asked the estimated percentage of cage-free operations in Canada, Evans says cages are currently the most widely-used housing system, though other systems are being adopted, including free-run indoor systems and free-range systems with access to the outdoors, weather permitting. “There are plusses and minuses to all housing types,” she notes, “and trade-offs must be carefully analyzed and assessed.”
Almost all the housing for layers that Big Dutchman has been selling since 2010 in all of U.S. and Canada are cage-free and enriched/enrichable systems, says cage-free systems manager Bill Snow. “There have been a couple conventional cage systems sold, but only a few,” he notes. “Mostly cage-free is what we are seeing in California. “The return-on- investment is usually seven years, but I am sure this varies.”
Increasing consumer awareness of animal welfare issues is impacting how eggs are produced and marketed. Some jurisdictions have passed legislation prohibiting the use of conventional cages and requiring that hens be housed in alternative systems, while a growing number of food retailers and manufacturers require eggs they sell/use to come from alternative housing systems.
While the vast majority of eggs sold in Canada are still produced in conventional cages it is expected that demand for eggs from enhanced animal welfare production systems will grow in Canada. The relative immaturity of this “specialty egg” market means that consumer acceptance and willingness to pay for eggs from enhanced animal welfare production systems is still poorly understood in Canada.
For this reason, Yiqing Lu, former MSc. student in the Department of Food, Agricultural & Resource Economics and advisors Dr. John Cranfield and Tina Widowski developed a project seeking to generate new economic knowledge that helps to inform industry stakeholders regarding consumer acceptance and valuation of eggs from enhanced animal welfare production systems, and the potential size of the market for such eggs.
The specific objectives were to understand the socio-demographic and psychographic factors associated with consumer acceptance of eggs from animal welfare enhanced production systems, including enriched and cage-free systems; To identify and measure the size of consumer segments with a high degree of acceptance of eggs from these different systems; To measure consumer’s stated willingness-to-pay (WTP) for eggs from these different systems; And to explore how stated willingness to pay varies across segments of consumers, as well as segments of consumers with differing actual purchase behaviours of eggs from these systems.
Two choice experiments (CE) were designed. In each choice experiment, respondents were presented with a set of choice tasks. In each choice task, the respondent was presented with eggs embodying different attributes, and they had to indicate which, if any, they would purchase. The attributes of eggs in the first choice experiment were: price; housing systems; organization that verifies the housing systems; Omega-3; and shell colour. The attributes of eggs in the second choice experiment were: price; whether hens had access to the outdoors; whether cages were used in the housing system; and the availability of nest boxes, perches for roosting and scratch pads for dust bathing.
The effect of information on consumers’ purchase behaviour towards eggs from enhanced animal welfare production systems was also investigated by including two information treatments in each choice experiment. In treatment 1, a description of the housing systems from whence the eggs came was provided. In treatment 2, the same information was provided, plus additional, scientifically based information regarding the consequences of each housing system on: hens’ health, hens’ ability to exhibit natural behaviours, affective states; and the impact of housing systems on environment. Structured this way, the two information treatments will reveal whether scientifically valid information affects consumer WTP, and if so, how. Note that WTP is not the price for the product, but rather the premium associated with that attribute.
An on-line survey was undertaken, using Ipsos’ i-Say on-line panel. The sample was representative of the Canadian population in terms of demographic characteristics. Respondents were generally concerned about animal welfare, but did not consider animal welfare among the top issues when purchasing food. Of the three aspects of animal welfare, namely basic health and functioning, natural behaviour, and affective states, “basic health and functioning” was viewed as most important. Respondents’ knowledge of animal production was limited, and they believed that scientific evidence, rather than ethical or moral considerations, should be used to determine how farm animals are treated.
The results from the choice experiment were informative. In choice experiment 1 treatment 1, respondents were willing to pay a premium of $1.15 ($0.86 in treatment 2) per dozen for free-range and $0.55 ($0.28 in treatment two) per dozen for free-run systems. The premiums for these two housing systems were higher than the premiums for Omega-3 fatty acid enhanced eggs, or white/brown colour attribute. However, eggs from an enriched cage system did not induce a positive premium; in fact eggs from a system labeled as “enriched cage system” had a discount of $0.31 per dozen in treatment 1 and $0.33 per dozen in treatment 2. For verification attributes, respondents were willing to pay a premium of $0.69 in treatment 1 (or $0.60 in treatment 2) if government verifies the housing systems, $0.16 (or $0.18 in treatment 2) for a third party certifier verification and $0.22 (or $0.11 in treatment 2) for industry certifier.
In choice experiment 2, eggs from systems where hens had access to the outdoors yielded the highest WTP ($0.63 in treatment 1 and $0.57 in treatment 2) followed by “the presence of nest boxes, perches for roosting and scratch pads for dust bathing” ($0.45 in treatment 1 and $0.44 in treatment 2), and the cage-free attribute ($0.19 in treatment 1 and $0.08 in treatment 2). The latter result suggests a premium for the absence of cages in the housing systems; viewed another way, the presence of cages in the housing system would result in a discount. This is an important result and it aligns with the results from experiment 1; it suggests that consumers value the absence of cages in hen housing. Respondents were willing to pay $0.01 in treatment 1 ($0.004 in treatment 2) for every square inch increase in a housing system.
Comparing the WTP results from two information treatments in each choice experiment allows one to assess the effect of information. In choice experiment 1, the provision of additional information in treatment 2 resulted in lower premiums for eggs from free-run and free-range housing systems (compared to treatment one). Across the two treatments, there were no other significant differences in WTP for the other attributes in choice experiment 1. In choice experiment 2, the WTP for the cage-free attribute decreased in treatment two, but not for the other attributes. As there were no differences in sample characteristics across treatments, we may attribute the disparity in WTPs across the treatments to differences in the information that was provided.
Consequently, it is concluded that information on the consequences of each housing systems on hen health and welfare reduces consumer valuation of eggs from free-run and free-range systems (and their valuation of the absence of cages generally).
Although consumers have limited knowledge about animal production system and animal welfare, they are sensitive to information about housing systems. It is important for egg producers to communicate well with consumers. Providing detailed information about the consequences of the housing systems on hen health and welfare reduces consumer valuation of eggs from free-run and free-range. And while respondents value the absence of cages (or discount eggs from systems that use cages), this value is also reduced when information on the consequences of the system on hen health and welfare is presented to subjects. An important lesson from this is that use of the word cage (e.g. enriched cages) should be avoided lest the price consumers would pay will be reduced.
In 2011, Maurice Richard became the first egg producer in Quebec to use enriched cages on his poultry farm. Two years later, he says he never wants to go back to conventional housing.
It all began when he set off to western Europe in 2010 to tour poultry farms and study the newly installed enriched cage systems mandated by European Union directives. Upon his return, Richard, an egg producer with 76,000 layers on two farms in Rivière – Héva, Que., decided to demolish one of his own bird barns (circa 1975) housing 25,000 layers, to make the transition from conventional to enriched cages the following year.
Richard now operates an enriched cage production system on two floors, with three decks on each eight-foot floor that is ventilated through a forced-air system in the roof.
The layers like their enriched cages, says Richard, adding that 90 per cent of their eggs are laid in the nesting boxes.
“Each hen will lay more eggs if they have more space in the cages,” he adds. “You have to achieve a balance with the cage’s population density.” With this new system, each cage can contain 60 white birds or 48 brown birds.
Richard installed LED lighting in some scratch areas in the cages, leaving a darker area of the cage available for the layers’ nests. He also programmed his LED lighting for artificial sunrise and sunset to stimulate the productivity of his hens.
He told the Nova Scotia Egg Producers (NSEP) that he chose to heat his new layer building because he wanted to dry the layers’ manure, “The eggs they lay are very clean,” he says. “The enriched cage system seems to lower bird mortality.”
Productivity in the enriched cages is better than in conventional cages, with about 338 eggs per hen over 52 weeks of production, Richard estimates. The new cages are in a building that is 86.5 metres (284 feet) long and 13.7 metres (45 feet) wide, and each cage is approximately 1.2 metres (four feet) by 11.8 metres (39 feet).
“With the enriched cages it takes longer to clean the building because it’s bigger than the building it replaced,” he says. “Because there are more birds housed, it also requires more poultry feed.”
This year, he plans to tear down a second barn that holds conventional cages and replace it with another new structure holding enriched cages. The price per layer, not including the cost of foundation and footings, will be about $42: $17 per enriched cage and another $25 for the building itself.
Dr. Jayson Lusk, on behalf of the World Society for the Protection of Animals, recently analyzed a consumer survey and in combination with his previous research, found that if consumers knew more about hen housing conditions, cage-free egg sales would likely increase.
Dr. Lusk, a professor and Willard Sparks Endowed Chair at the Department of Agricultural Economics at Oklahoma State University, said that the biggest problem preventing cage-free eggs from acquiring a larger market share is the knowledge of the customer. "Most people do not know much about egg production, and when you ask most American consumers, their perceptions about egg laying conditions are wrong."
In fact, according to Dr. Lusk, previous studies have found that customers think anywhere from 40-70 per cent of egg-laying hens are kept in cages, while the reality in the U.S. is closer to 95 per cent. "People tend to have a more 'romantic' view of agriculture than is often the case," he said.
In his report, Dr. Lusk used the example of Proposition 2 in California from 2008, a ballot initiative that passed with over 60 per cent in favour to ban conventional cages. Because of the large media initiative by supporters and proponents writes Dr. Lusk, there was an abundance of information on layer housing conditions available to the public. "Over that time period," he said, "the market share for organic and cage-free eggs increased significantly when that vote and advertisements were going on"
As of 2008, the market share for cage-free and organic eggs was two percent. But, by using this information in addition to retail scanning data from Oakland and San Francisco, Dr. Lusk was able to predict how increasing consumer knowledge could affect egg sales.
Dr. Lusk forecasts that:
• A modest increase in consumer knowledge (from 10 to 25 per cent) could increase market share for cage-free eggs by 20 percent. If three quarters of consumers received information regarding layer housing, the market share of cage-free eggs could rise by up to 62 per cent.
• If conventional cages are eliminated, costs for customers conventional eggs would increase about 15 percent, potentially causing cage-free sales to grow by 12 per cent.
• As market share rises, production efficiencies would emerge, dropping the cost of cage-free eggs by 10 per cent – which could, in turn, increase market share.
Ultimately, Dr. Lusk added, it is the market that will determine what changes (if any) will be made with respect to egg sales. But the demand for cage-free and organic eggs will continue to increase.
"And if those things align in a way that result in improved living conditions for the hens," he added. "That would be great."
It’s a situation that surprised many in 2011 and 2012 inside and outside of the United States, but much progress has been made over the last two years in the quest to enact historic national legislation for enriched cages for layer hens – and that progress is steadily continuing.
The move, which grew from lobbying efforts over the last few years by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), is supported by UEP (the United Egg Producers), a group that represents those that produce almost 95 per cent of U.S. eggs. “This amendment is supported by hundreds of family farmers, most of the national animal welfare groups such as HSUS and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, major consumer groups like Consumer Federation of America and National Consumers League, and scientific groups like the American Veterinary Medical Association and the Association of Avian Veterinarians – as well as dozens of media outlets, including the Chicago Tribune, New York Times and USA Today,” says UEP president Chad Gregory. “We think it’s best for our industry on all fronts.”
“The Egg Products Inspection Act Amendments of 2012” if passed, would require enriched colony housing systems to be phased into every commercial egg production facility in the country over the next 15 to 18 years.
Currently, a majority of U.S. hens are each provided 67 square inches of space, with up to 50 million receiving just 48 square inches. The proposed phase‐in would culminate with a minimum of 124 square inches of space for white hens and 144 for brown hens countrywide. Gregory adds, “The amendment also requires that after a phase‐in period, all egg‐laying hens be provided with environmental enrichments such as perches, nesting boxes and scratching areas that allow hens to express natural behaviours.”
The proposed legislation goes further – there are requirements for labelling on all egg cartons in the country to inform consumers about production method: “eggs from caged hens,” “eggs from hens in enriched cages,” “eggs from cage‐free hens” and “eggs from free‐range hens.” Feed-withdrawal or water-withdrawal molting to extend the laying cycle is also prohibited if the bill passes (a practice already prohibited under the UEP’s “Certified” program). In addition, the bill includes standards for euthanasia of egg‐laying hens that have been approved by the American Veterinary Medical Association, limits on ammonia levels in henhouses, and the prohibition of the transport and sale of eggs and egg products countrywide that don’t meet these requirements.
Rationale for UEP’s decision
By 2010, the HSUS had helped ensure the passing of Proposition 2 in California, which mandates that layers be housed in such a way that allows them freedom of movement, in an enriched cage or aviary, but the specifications were not exactly defined.
Still, at the time – and in some minds today – it was rather shocking when in July 2011, the UEP and HSUS announced that they had agreed to work together to push for federal legislation. (The HSUS agreed to immediately suspend state-level ballot initiative efforts in Oregon and Washington.) “Protecting the stability of our industry is part of this,” says Gregory.
Industry at risk
The conundrum was a matter of supporting uniform federal legislation for a commodity that is often shipped from state to state, versus producers having to deal with dozens of contradictory, unworkable and competing state laws relating to egg production standards that were sure to spring up instead, and in light of this, the UEP stance seems very logical. “Five states already have such laws,” Gregory notes. “Federal legislation is the only way to ensure a uniform baseline for laying hen standards within the U.S. egg industry, and it’s the only way to pre-empt the state laws that call for conflicting standards. We need certainty about what standards are going to be required in the coming years so we can make the necessary investments.
Some farm groups, however, are still fighting the amendment, concerned that it sets a precedent for federal legislation concerning how farm animals are managed – stepping onto a slippery slope, if you will. There are also those who do not see the new cage requirements as science-based, while others argue that to codify cage standards today is to ignore innovations that could appear in the future. The UEP counters this by pointing out that leading scientists familiar with egg production see it as a transitional move. “Our scientific advisory committee, the American Veterinary Medical Association and other prestigious institutions have reviewed enriched cages and have noted that they combine the advantages of both conventional cages and cage-free systems,” says Gregory. “And a great deal of research shows that increasing the amount of space per hen and providing the hens with environmental enrichments improves their welfare, which is advantageous for hens and producers alike.”
There are also concerns capital costs of transitioning to enriched cages could be prohibitive for small producers. UEP has an answer for that too. “Studies show that enriched colony cages can be better for production than conventional cages, as the hens have lower mortality and higher productivity,” Gregory explains. “These improvements are confirmed in a January 2012 Feedstuffs report on an American egg producer using enriched colony cages: mortality was 4.22 per cent compared to 7.61 per cent in conventional cages, eggs laid per hen were 421 versus 399, and average case weight was 49.4 versus 47.93 pounds.”
Lastly, there are worries over the cost of eggs going up – and consumers therefore eating less of them. “We have an Agralytica study that predicts that enacting this legislation would add less than two cents to the cost of a dozen eggs spread out over an 18‐year period,” states Gregory.”
“It seems a big and scary move for some, and it’s hard for some in our industry to see the big picture,” says Gregory. “But we think this is the right thing for our nation’s laying hens and our farmers. The alternative to having a national standard for all U.S. egg producers is a future that’s not good for anyone.”
For more, visit www.eggbill.com.
When the Big Bend Colony decided to build a new layer barn with enriched housing in 2009, it was done with the future in mind.
Canadian Poultry magazine visited the colony, located south of Lethbridge, Alberta, this past spring to talk with members about their experience with this new type of housing. Big Bend was the first in North America to order an installation of an enriched system.
“It wasn’t a quick decision,” says Joe Kleinsasser of Big Bend. Although he’s not the chicken boss — that job has been held for the last 11 years by George Gross — Joe Kleinsasser has been involved with the layer operation and currently serves as Vice-Chairman of the Egg Farmers of Alberta.
Looking to replace its old layer barn, which housed just over 10,000 layers in a conventional caging system, Kleinsasser says the colony knew it didn’t want to have to upgrade in five to 10 years time, so they looked to the types of housing systems being used in Europe. Although installing conventional-type cages again would have meant building a smaller barn, “we didn’t want to do that,” he says.
The idea of installing an aviary was decided against because it was “too labour intensive” and they were worried about having to deal with floor eggs, which they felt was a food safety concern. Kleinsasser says they also did not feel that the science had proven the benefits of an aviary, and they saw European producers were moving away from loose housing systems and going back to enriched.
The colony leased an additional 8,000 birds (bringing the total close to 20,000) and built a new barn with Big Dutchman’s Colony Cage System (known as Avech), which provides 116 square inches per bird. Sixty birds are housed within each 146x46 inch unit, and share a large nesting area and perches.
The units offered a scratch area through the use of a rubber scratch pad, however Gross and Kleinsasser say that the scratch pads have since been removed because they were collecting too much dirt. They noted that the birds did use this area, and they would include a scratch area again if the mats were proven to stay clean. After viewing a presentation given by Dr. Tina Widowski, an animal welfare professor at the University of Guelph and the current Canada Chair for Poultry Welfare for the Egg Farmers of Canada (EFC) at the Egg Farmers of Alberta annual meeting, they are considering using a flat plastic scratch mat, something Widowski has been utilizing in her studies on enriched housing. Her preliminary research shows that these mats stay much cleaner than the rubber mats (which have piles that can collect dirt).
Gross says that they have had little problem with eggs laid out of the nesting area, estimating that 95 per cent are laid within the nest area. As for production, over three flocks they have averaged 98 per cent, which is “an improvement over our last system,” says Gross. He says there is little fluctuation in production, and mortality has been reduced by half.
When they placed the first flock, Kleinsasser says, they “tried their own research” and increased the density in several of the colony units to 65 or 70 birds. “We didn’t notice any real changes in bird behaviour or production,” he says. However, the first flock was “flightier” (the birds were a Shaver breed) — three subsequent flocks have been Lohmann and H&N, which are calmer, he says.
One of the biggest improvements they have noticed is that the birds have better feather covering than those housed in the old layer barn, even when only a few weeks away from end of lay. “The birds are in better condition, and they look good,” says Kleinsasser. The birds are also more relaxed, he says. Occasionally he will notice birds with their legs stretched out and he feels “there is no way they would be at 98 per cent production” if they were not relaxed.
The birds are more active within the enriched system, and Gross says that feed consumption has gone up a little, but “not substantially.” However, he says that a learning curve for him was timing the feedings so that the birds would eat enough. He and Kleinsasser feel there is so much for the birds to do, that adding an extra feeding (five times per days versus four times a day in the old barn) was necessary to keep the birds focused on eating.
Big Bend raises about 10,000 pullets, and the other 10,000 are purchased. All are cage-reared, but “have no trouble adapting” to the enriched system, says Kleinsasser. The pullets are placed at 19 weeks of age and adapt to the nest area very well, he says.
When the new barn to house the enriched system was built, the colony also built a feed mill to produce its own feed for the layers as well as its hog operation. The mill uses a micro ingredient feed batching method, blending wheat grown on the colony with purchased canola and soybean meal, canola oil, and premix, which has been formulated by a local poultry nutritionist. Although the feed mill is located near the hog barn, when feed mixed for the layers or pullets is ready, it is transported to the layer and pullet barns underground.
Gross says being able to make his own feed has allowed for greater consistency. Although the initial capitol cost to install enriched housing was high (about 40 per cent greater than that of conventional housing), the enriched housing combined with greater feed control has had “great benefits for production.”
The hens produce about 12,000 dozen eggs per week and cracks are less than two percent, and undergrades are less than three per cent — a great improvement over the old barn, says Kleinsasser.
The colony has also begun receiving a premium for the eggs. Their grader, Burnbrae, began marketing eggs from Big Bend Colony’s enriched housing under the brand name “Nestlaid” in Safeway stores and some Sobeys stores throughout the province.
Although many people who came to an open house held by the colony in 2009 thought Big Bend was rushing into enriched and the industry wasn’t there yet, Kleinsasser says, “installing such a system is a very positive thing for the industry.”
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Ontario Poultry Breeders Sat Oct 21, 2017 @ 8:00AM - 05:00PM
Poultry Welfare Auditor Course (PAACO)Tue Oct 31, 2017 @ 8:00AM - 05:00PM
Harvest Gala 2017 Thu Nov 02, 2017 @ 8:00AM - 05:00PM
Poultry Innovations Conference and BanquetWed Nov 08, 2017 @ 8:00AM - 05:00PM
AgEx - Agricultural Excellence ConferenceTue Nov 21, 2017
Eastern Ontario Poultry ConferenceWed Nov 29, 2017 @ 8:00AM - 05:00PM