In battling the Humane Society of the United States effort to place a measure on the November ballot that would ban battery cages in California, some of the state’s producers are opening their doors to reporters to show that caged birds are likely to be cleaner and healthier than their average cage-free counterparts, according to an article in McClatchy Newspapers.

Some animal welfare experts agree. “When you give a hen some of these behavioral freedoms, you increase health risks,” says University of California-Davis professor Joy Mench, who has worked with both the Humane Society and mainstream egg producers to craft welfare standards for cage and cage-free hens. She says that Europe’s experience in adopting cage-free production has yielded thousands of pages of studies comparing caged versus cage-free systems. Two key findings:

  • Cage-free hens die at more than twice the rate of caged hens, due to more exposure to manure, and to each other.
  • Cage-free birds suffer high rates of broken bones, as high as 67 percent in one survey. Mench says that most modern laying hens suffer from osteoporosis, and are easily injured from a shift of caged to cage-free production.

The article says that it’s unclear how much the cage-free initiative would drive up prices for consumers because it would still allow California grocers to sell low-priced conventional eggs produced in other states. In 2006, 29 percent of the 8.2 billion eggs sold in California came from other states.

Several egg producers interviewed for the article said there are both good and bad examples of caged and cage-free production. But even long-time cage-free producers do not support the Humane Society’s initiative. Mike Sencer, executive vice president of Fullerton-based Hidden Villa Farms, began raising some of his checks cage-free and organic in the early 1990s, and is now one the country’s leading suppliers.

“There are consumers that want cage-free, and some want the caged, and I see pros and cons of both,” he says.