Can the egg industry learn from pork processors?
Different industries face common challenges
The US layer and swine industries have developed quite differently, but they have some common challenges. Modern confinement housing systems have generally improved animal health and productivity over the free-range systems employed in the past. Over time, housing systems have evolved to not just protect animals from the elements, but also maintain them in group sizes that minimize detrimental contact with other individuals, which limits mortality and improves productivity.
Consumer acceptance of confinement housing systems varies, and animal welfare and animal rights activist groups have tried to highlight aspects of these systems which limit animal mobility. Conventional cages employed by the layer industry and gestation crates or stalls used by swine producers have been particular targets of activist groups' efforts.
There are thousands of hog farms in the US, but only a few major swine processors. Smithfield Foods announced recently that it would require its contract sow farms to eliminate the use of gestation crates by 2022 and would offer financial incentives for producers to switch to group housing systems before then. In a letter to contract swine farmers, Tyson Foods made a much more open-ended request:
"We urge pork producers to improve housing systems for gestating sows by focusing on both the quality and quantity of space provided. Whether it involves gestation stalls, pens or some other type of housing, we believe future sow housing should allow sows of all sizes to stand, turn around, lie down and stretch their legs. "
The Egg Bill would create a transition period for the US layer industry to move out of conventional cages into either cage-free or enriched colony systems. Because the Egg Bill is considered unlikely to gain passage, what is next for US egg producers? Will a California-based egg company announce a transition out of conventional cages? Could an egg producer outside of California develop a market and brand for eggs from enriched cages? We certainly live in interesting times.