The ban on conventional cages within the European Union is imminent; but how prepared are the countries within the EU? How will their new production systems affect the hens and the eggs they lay? And what are the commercial costs and implications of these new systems?
At last year’s International Egg Commission Conference in Canada, egg industry experts, Mark Williams, Thea Fiks-van Niekerk, Peter van Horne, Gert Stuke and Andrew Joret, provided delegates with a unique opportunity to learn about the latest EU developments, as they each shared their industry insights and research.
So, what is the current situation regarding cages within Europe?
By January 1, 2012, if you produce eggs anywhere in the European Union, the only egg production systems you will be permitted to use will be: enriched; free range; barn or organic methods. In only two years’ time, conventional cages will be banned throughout Europe yet, according to figures presented by Mark Williams, in Europe in 2008, 278 million hens were in cage systems, and only 20 million, or 7% of these, were in enriched colonies. He believes that the industry faces a huge challenge to move all those hens across in the time remaining.
Germany is operating ahead of the EU; all laying hens in Germany had to be out of conventional cages by the end of 2009.
Gert Stuke explained that six research farms were set up in Germany to study the animal, ethical and human aspects of using enriched colony systems. The farms studied all aspects of animal health and hygiene, as well as the ethical implications such as animal protection, and human food safety and risk assessment issues.
Results showed that the German Kleingruppenhaltung colony system is highly effective in achieving the highest levels of animal health, animal welfare and food safety. Laying performance is comparable with conventional cages; mortality is lower than in alternative laying systems; there is no need for beak shortening; the system allows good observation of the hens; the stability of the hens’ legs and bones is comparable to other laying systems and the Kleingruppenhaltung system enables the highest levels of hygiene to be met.
The Netherlands has decided to adopt Germany’s Kleingruppenhaltung system. As a major supplier to the German market, Dutch egg producers are responding to German market trends and demands.
In Austria, conventional cages were prohibited at the end of 2008, and enriched colonies will also be banned by 2020.
In 1989, Sweden made the decision to ban conventional cages. Egg farmers were originally given a period of 10 years to phase out conventional cages, but this was later extended, and conventional cages ceased to be used in Sweden by the end of 2002. Enriched colony systems are permitted in Sweden.
Belgium will comply with the EU Directive to ban conventional cages by the beginning of 2012. There is also a proposal to ban enriched colonies in Belgium by the end of 2024, however, according to Mark Williams, this complete cage ban is unlikely to come into force until 2040.
As the EU ban on conventional cages draws closer, most European countries are moving towards enriched colony systems, at least in the short- to mid-term. Numerous research projects have been carried out throughout Europe, studying the commercial implications of adopting these systems.
Thea Fiks-van Niekerk is currently leading a research project studying the housing and welfare of laying hens. A recent study, the LayWel Project, compared the behaviour of birds in conventional cages, with that of birds in enriched colonies.
Mark Williams believes that Europe faces a huge challenge in meeting the 2012 deadline.
The aim of the study was to determine whether the birds use the additional features found in enriched colonies, i.e. the perch, nest box and litter area. The study also compared the production processes of these two cage systems, including egg quality, feed intake and the health and hygiene of the birds.
The results showed that the hens do use the facilities provided in enriched colonies; with 95–99% of eggs were laid in the nest boxes. 40–50% of the hens used the perches during the day time, while at night almost all, 80-90% used the perch.
Having studied the production results from both conventional cages and enriched colonies, Dr Fiks-van Niekerk recommends that enriched systems incorporate an egg saver and time clock, which will periodically move the egg belt, helping to reduce grouping and prevent the eggs on the belt knocking into each other and cracking.
The quality of eggs laid in enriched colonies is comparable to those laid in conventional cages, 93.29% of eggs laid in conventional cages were 1st grade, compared to 92.27% in enriched colonies.
When the feed intake of birds in conventional cages was compared to the feed intake of birds in enriched colonies, surprisingly, the results showed that the hens in the colonies actually consumed slightly less. It was expected that due to having more movement and using more energy, feed intake would be higher for the enriched hens.
One theory, offered by Dr Fiks-van Niekerk for this lower result is that birds in the enriched colony can sit quietly on the perch, therefore moving less than birds in a conventional system.
Overall, the production results using the enriched colony systems were very similar to the results achieved using conventional cages.
When assessing the risk of disease, there was no significant difference found between conventional cages and enriched colonies.
The studies carried out comparing the two cage systems conclude that hens do use the facilities made available to them in the enriched colonies, while egg production, bird health and egg hygiene are very similar for hens in conventional cages and enriched colony systems.
Having established that most European countries will adopt enriched colonies, Peter van Horne addressed the economic impact of the system.
Enriched colonies require slightly higher labour input, while the density of hens will decrease, resulting in an additional cost per hen. In addition, there is the capital investment required to install the systems. These economic factors result in an 8-10% increase in production costs for enriched colonies.
Despite the extra investment required, eggs produced in enriched colony systems do not attract premium prices. He added that: “at this moment there is no mark-up bonus in the market in Europe”.
Free-range eggs and organic eggs have the benefit of generating higher market prices, but consumers regard eggs laid in enriched colonies as still being caged eggs, so are not prepared to pay a premium. Therefore the enriched colonies incur additional costs, without generating additional revenue.
Experts attending the conference expressed confidence that enriched colonies will comply with animal welfare guidelines, including those in California, while maintaining an efficient production system.
Andrew Joret stressed that the body of scientific evidence shows that enriched colonies provide good production results, and although it is still difficult to actively promote them to consumers, they are easier to defend than conventional cages. However, in the eyes of the consumer, as Andrew Joret explained, “a cage is still a cage”.
In the UK two of the country’s leading four supermarkets have declared that they will sell eggs farmed from enriched cages, one will not and the remaining one is currently undecided.
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Dr Fiks-van Niekerk points to studies showing that hens in enriched colonies consumed less feed.
Peter van Horne notes that production costs for enriched colonies can be 8-10% higher.
Enriched colonies provide good results, yet it remains difficult to promote them to consumers, notes Andrew Joret.
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