Professor Jeffrey D. Armstrong serves as the Dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University. Dr. Armstrong received his BS degree from Murray State University in 1981 and his graduate degrees comprising an MS 1984 and a Ph.D in 1996 from North Carolina State University. His initial involvement was in reproductive physiology and he became interested in aspects of animal welfare, social responsibility and sustainability during his tenure at NC State.
He transferred to Purdue University where he served as head of the Department of Animal Sciences in 1997 and was appointed to his present position at MSU in 2001. Dr. Armstrong is chair of the Scientific Welfare Advisory Committee of the United Egg Producers and is a member of welfare advisory panels operated by multinational chain restaurants. He is the past president of the American Society of Animal Science.
Recently, Egg Industry had the opportunity to discuss current industry topics with Dr. Armstrong.
EI: Please indicate how you became interested in welfare issues?
JDA: Animal welfare and social responsibility became issues in North Carolina during the time that I worked with the hog industry. In 1997 when I joined Perdue as Head of the Animal Science Department, the USDA-ARS livestock unit was located at the university and it was natural for me to cooperate with this talented group of people. Indiana is a large egg producing state and I was introduced to the emerging issues of flock welfare at this time.
EI: How have you translated your research interests into practical contributions?
JDA: There is an obvious need for scientific evaluation of available knowledge and literature to provide counsel to the industry. During the late 90s the American Egg Board and the United Egg Producers (UEP) were aware of the trends in welfare emerging in Europe and their possible effect on the U.S. industry. In 1998 I was asked to form a committee of scientist to evaluate current knowledge and to provide advice including a review of existing guidelines. The committee was composed of scientists versed in welfare, physiology, ethics and other matters. Producer representatives were involved but not included as voting members of the committee. Our mission is to provide scientific appraisal since it is not appropriate for the academic community to dictate to industry.
EI: How do you interact with breeding companies, egg producers and the allied industry on innovations?
JDA: The committee has worked closely with scientists affiliated to the major primary breeders who have access to both published and proprietary in-company research. Obviously our involvement with cage manufacturers is helpful and has facilitated interaction with design and production engineers involved with cages, floor systems, housing and ventilation. This has been especially the case with developing innovative cage systems such as colony and enriched cages and cage-free systems.
EI: How has the work of the Scientific Committee been structured?
JDA: Our committee meets at regular intervals and individual members have evaluated publications and reports from universities, U.S. and EU manufacturers especially in relation to alternative systems. We have attempted to determine how these systems affect production parameters including egg yield and livability. The egg industry has been the most proactive among all livestock groups in applying scientific principles to the development of welfare guidelines. Our recommendations which are based on science are forwarded to the Producer Committee of the UEP who are responsible for writing guidelines. During our association I am not aware of any compromise of science in the guidelines issued although at times we have been criticized for being either too slow or too fast in our deliberations. Welfare is an actively developing field and it is necessary to carefully consider all aspects of published research especially with regard to application to the U.S. situation.
EI: How do you view trends in future housing and equipment technology?
JDA: Our future depends on the direction in which we are being pulled. We are heavily influenced by activities in the EU which will ban conventional cages by 2012. It is evident that some U.S. producers are hedging their bets by installing “enrichable” cages which can be converted to fully enriched colony units at some stage in the future should this be required. Subsequent modification will be achieved with minimal disruption of ongoing production and minimizing investment. The future of facilities in the U.S. is not clear.
EI: How will the industry respond to welfare legislation in California and the Michigan agreement?
JDA: Interpretation of California Proposition #2 is a subject of debate. J.S. West, supported by members of the scientific community considers that the enriched system they have installed as a large-scale test unit complies with the requirements of Proposition 2. It is understood that other units are being considered for the State. Ultimately there will have to be clarification of what Proposition 2 actually mandates or it should be supplanted by a more precise legislation. Delaying the decision will limit the options open to current and prospective producers.
It is also clear from a scientific perspective that the enriched cage should meet the needs of the leglislation passed in Michigan. A big question that remains is the space requirements for US strain birds housed in enriched cages. The EU guidelines of 116 square inches per bird is based on very few studies and using brown strains of hens.
EI: What progress has been made in evaluating alternative housing systems?
JDA: The 4 to 5 year study to be undertaken by the Coalition for a Sustainable Egg Supply will be conducted as a joint venture between MSU and UC Davis. The study will consider three systems each with 50,000 hens. These will comprise enriched cages allowing 116 in², conventional cages with a floor allowance of 72 in² and an aviary. The enriched cage density is based on EU recommendations complying with brown-feathered strains. Michigan State University wishes to host the proposed $2.7 million research unit to evaluate alternative systems. Unfortunately we will not break ground until the funding is obtained. We have received initial contributions and commitments and we trust that the project will go forward. Advisors to the Coalition include the American Veterinary Medical Association, the USDA-ARS and the Environmental Defence Fund.
EI: What is your long-term vision for the U.S. egg industry?
JDA: I believe that there is a bright future for egg production in the U.S. The inherent efficient conversion of ingredients into high quality protein will be critical to feeding upwards of 9 billion people by the middle of this century. We will have to increase food production by 70% using currently available resources. This means that we have to maximize utilization of energy and water through the entire chain of production from ingredients to eggs. Obviously we can only feed our burgeoning populations using intensive agricultural systems. Practicality and economic realities will have to prevail over emotion. While extensive systems provide a role, we cannot feed 9 plus billion people with fewer resources without intensive production. Additional research is needed to determine the pros and cons of different systems. We have to evaluate sustainability from a holistic perspective – food safety, animal welfare, carbon footprint, worker welfare, etc.
EI: Thank you, Professor Armstrong, for your considerable contribution to the development of our industry and training the next generation of scientists.