Relative to processing poultry carcasses, processing eggs has been relatively easy to automate. When it comes to washing, inspecting, grading and packing shell eggs at an inline facility, the vast majority of the eggs can make it from the hen to the egg carton without being touched by a human. It is expected that automation will move into even more areas of egg processing in the not-so-distant future.
With increasing sensor capabilities and falling costs for computing power, practical systems are being developed that promise to fully automate tasks as varied as breast deboning and carcass inspection.
Just as egg producers are housing more cage-free hens, many pork producers are switching from gestation stalls to group pens for housing pregnant sows. The driving force for both of these transitions is purchase pledges by major foodservice and retail customers.
The 2014-2015 highly pathogenic avian influenza outbreaks in the U.S. provided a sobering reminder to all of animal agriculture the severity of the economic impact that can result from the introduction of a foreign animal disease into the U.S.
Reform of social security programs is often referred to as the “third rail” of American politics, in reference to the electrified high-voltage third rail used to power subway trains. Because of the reaction of trading partners, vaccination has become the “third rail” when it comes to avian influenza control, but it shouldn’t be.
Activist groups have been extremely successful at securing future purchase pledges from major retail and foodservice poultry buyers for chicken meat from birds that have been either raised without antibiotics at all or without use of antibiotics that are designated as important in human medicine. A similar campaign has succeeded in securing future cage-free egg purchase pledges that may very well lead to a complete conversion of the U.S. egg industry to cage-free housing for pullets and layers.
Now, a third campaign is being waged to secure future purchase pledges from chicken meat buyers that would set new standards for how U.S. broilers are raised, stunned and even the breed of the bird that is raised.
The U.S. layer industry is following in the footsteps of the European layer industry on the path away from conventional cages for housing hens. This conversion is coming about largely as a result of the lobbying of major retail and foodservice egg purchasers by animal welfare/rights groups. As someone who studied the behavior of laying hens in graduate school, but who also has a business degree and experience in large-scale meat bird production, I have been somewhat puzzled by these developments.