About two decades ago an industry leader opined, “Welfare is not going anywhere it’s a European thing.” At the time I expressed reservations, citing the changes which were imposed on medical researchers with regard to the care and use of experimental animals. Although a few stalwarts rejected the notion of consumer concern fueled by animal rights and welfare activists, the majority of the industry, to their credit, recognized the inevitability of changes in housing and production practices.
A valuable preemptive approach by the industry was exemplified in the initial United Egg Producers certification program. Despite a contentious start requiring some changes, this program appealed to responsible consumers and certainly was a reasonable response to members of the Food Marketing Institute and the National Chain Restaurant Association for uniform standards and an audit program.
Welfare is an emotional issue that encompasses ethics, religious principles, economics, and oversight by state and federal agencies. There is no question that welfare has been markedly influenced by events in Europe. The rise of the “Green Movement” coupled with the reality that a high proportion of the EU budget was used to sustain agricultural production created an environment conducive to restrictions on housing systems for flocks. Alternatives to conventional cages appeared at successive VIV expos in Holland and DLG Huhn und Schwein exhibitions in Germany during the late 1970s. To a large extent, the development of alternatives to conventional cages still continues to the present time and refinements are expected on an ongoing basis.
California Proposition 2 was a wake-up call for the industry. The run up to the ballot initiative clearly showed the financial clout of organizations such as PETA and the HSUS which have agendas extending beyond regulation of housing. The magnitude of the “pro” vote confirmed opposition to caged housing, albeit distorted, as presented by opponents of intensive animal production. The fact that calves and hogs were included in the Proposition promoted passage of the initiative. Ballots dealing with tethered sows have passed in Arizona and Florida and the concessions made by producers in Michigan appeared to confirm a national movement which was gaining momentum.
The situation has to a large extent been reversed by the establishment of Boards to rule on livestock welfare in non-ballot states. The settlement in Ohio, which represented a virtual retraction by HSUS in the face of strong opposition, was regarded as a retraction by HSUS due in part to the disclosures by Humanewatch.org. Where the vaguely worded standard HSUS “confinement clause” has been put before the public, there has been a marked split between urban and rural voters. States with constitutions which permit ballot initiatives and which have a large proportion of affluent, elderly and liberal-leaning urban voters relative to rural population represent a prime target for the HSUS and kindred organizations.
On balance, the poultry industry has responded positively to the profound pressures which are influencing change. The UEP and producers of branded eggs have adopted a policy of offering choice to consumers. Currently eggs can be purchased from a variety of housing systems. Unfortunately there is considerable confusion as to the definition of terms such as “free-range,” “free-roaming,” “cage-free,” “non-confined,” “enriched housing” and “all natural.” Even the regulations governing production under the statutory USDA-administered NOP “organic label” are under review. This is viewed by many as less a function of welfare than a thinly veiled approach to production control, discriminating against commercial-level operations.
The US approach to flock welfare
To develop, implement and regulate a program of flock welfare it is necessary to consider the following concepts:
- A clearly stated set of objectives
- Clear definitions describing specific systems
- A set of science-based standards which are realistic, practical and which relate specifically to the welfare of flocks
- Consistent, reliable and ethical auditing to ensure compliance with predetermined standards
To be effective, flock welfare must be based on scientific evaluation and standards must be accepted by all stakeholders in production, sales and consumption both for the institutional and domestic markets. It is critical to avoid confusing “welfare” with production practices and inferred attributes such as those mandated by the National Organic Program. This concept has been clearly expressed by the American Humane Association which imposes science-based standards and auditing. The organization has correctly questioned what appear to be arbitrary outside access requirements for flocks producing eggs with the NOP seal.
It is axiomatic that less-intensive production systems involve higher housing, labor and production costs compared to confinement in cages. This is where choice enters the equation. To charge more for an organic or “free-range” egg which is produced at a considerable cost to conform to rigid requirements which are not scientifically justified, requires a higher selling price. The extent to which consumers are willing to pay for the additional costs of production, distribution and retail markups for “welfare-produced” eggs has yet to be determined. During the recent recession, consumption of organic eggs declined as consumers substituted “cage-free” and “all-vegetable” substitutes. The higher the cost of a commodity, the smaller is the market segment willing to expend a proportionally higher purchase price for attributes which may or may not be quantifiable in terms of safety, quality or personal satisfaction.
The current situation regarding alternatives to cages
Despite the events, disclosures and activities of anti-confinement activists and adverse publicity during the past decade at least 90% of the nation’s 290 million hens are housed in conventional cages. Of the remainder, systems include purpose-built floor housing on slats and litter, converted broiler breeder units and more recently, the emergence of aviaries. At the current time all floor systems can qualify for organic production rules providing flocks are allowed a token access to the exterior of the house.
Proposed rules under consideration by the NOP would appear to discriminate against large in-line aviary complexes with total flock sizes ranging from 200,000 to 700,000 hens. In contrast to the UK and segments of the industry in continental Europe, free-range systems have not been adopted to any extent in the U.S. Climatic factors, disease and parasitism, labor cost and competition from lower-priced conventional and barn-housed eggs has limited the development of extensive on-pasture housing which will remain an insignificant niche in our overall production.
Non-confined “barn” systems generally comprise purpose-built houses fitted with slats, manure belts or scrapers, mechanical nests for egg collection, chain feeders and nipple drinkers and with insulation and ventilation appropriate to the area of operation. In the Southeast, surplus or obsolete broiler breeder units have been converted to producing brown eggs. In some cases, small high-rise cage houses have been converted to floor systems with the installation of plastic slats. With appropriate stocking density, management programs and stockman ship, floor housing can produce eggs conforming to breed standards. The major problems remain cannibalism, parasitism, soiled eggs and higher production costs relative to cages.
During the late 1970s, aviaries were introduced into the EU to increase return on investment through higher stocking density compared to conventional floor units. Multi-tier aviary modules allow flocks to make use of the cube volume of housing. Modules are fitted with communal nets with belt collection of eggs, mechanical feeders and drinker lines. The relatively high density in houses requires appropriate ventilation.
Although representing a high capital cost for the building and installations, with appropriate rearing and management egg yield and quality generally contribute to an acceptable return on fixed costs. For some time Big-Dutchman, Jansen, Vencomatic, Salmet, Farmer Automatic and Chore-Time have offered systems to producers in the U.S. and Canada building on experience in the EU. There are a number of functional complexes in the U.S. successfully producing both “cage free” (non-confined) and organic certified eggs.
Enriched and enrichable systems
In response to the proposed 2012 EU ban on conventional cages and following research at institutions in continental Europe, producers in Germany and other western EU nations have adopted enriched caged systems as an alternative to conventional housing. Enriched modules incorporate the advantages of both floor and caged systems, maintaining confinement but offering an apparently superior environment from the perspective of behavior. Germany converted a high proportion of conventional production to enriched cages and the system is being adopted in the UK.
In the EU, eggs are individually stamped with the production system designating “free-range,” “free-roaming in barn” or “confined to a cage.” A detailed Opinion Paper on enriched cages was released by the prestigious UK Farm Animal Welfare Council in November 2007 to which readers are referred for a scientific assessment of the merits of the system compared to conventional cages. www.fawc.org.uk. Current EU regulations however assign a “caged” stamp to enriched systems. This reduces the value of eggs produced and does not allow farmers to recoup the higher capital costs associated with enriched cages and the associated low stocking density of approximately 120 inches2/hen. Most German supermarkets will not sell eggs bearing the “caged” designation.
Following the advent of California Proposition 2, expansion and re-caging in the state ceased. Plans for new complexes to replace obsolete units were shelved. Traditionally California has imported approximately one third of the eggs consumed in the state. Faced with the prospect of an influx of less expensive Midwest eggs derived from cages, the California Legislature banned introduction of eggs produced from systems which were not in compliance with Proposition 2.
The question of interference with interstate commerce and the meaning of California Proposition 2 will be the subject of prolonged legal actions. J.S. West, a progressive family-owned producer in Northern California installed a Big-Dutchman enriched system as a commercial-scale demonstration unit. The house is under video surveillance and the “hen-cam” can be accessed at www.jswest.com.
J.S. West has initiated a lawsuit naming the State Attorney General as the Defendant with the objective of demonstrating that the unit conforms to the requirements of Proposition 2 with respect to freedom of movement and provision of space for hens to move and stretch their wings, scratch and perch. It is understood that the eggs from this unit are sold through a large supermarket chain under a specific “comfort” designation at a premium of approximately 25 cents per dozen.
Re-caging and uncertainty
Proposition 2 and subsequent California legislation, the possibility of additional State ballot initiatives or an unlikely “Federal approach” by HSUS has created a dilemma for the industry. Since the American Humane Association has established standards for certification for enriched cages, there is considerable interest in the system, irrespective of the outcome of the case initiated by J.S. West.
It is a reality that many producers especially in the Midwest wish to upgrade their conventional high-rise houses to increase stocking density and at the same time reduce the risks associated with Salmonella enteritidis infection, inherent to storage of manure for prolonged periods in pits. The resolution of the impasse between the uncertainty concerning future requirements and the imperative to upgrade conventional cages may be resolved by installation of “enrichable” cages.
Big Dutchman offers the AVECH II line of products to provide flexibility. Enrichable cages cost approximately 10% to 15% more than conventional cages operated at the same stocking density of 67 inches2/hen. These units can be converted at a subsequent time to conform to AHA enrichment standards for certification. It takes approximately 30 minutes to convert each 12-foot section by installation of a nest box, scratch area and perches. Feeding and nipple systems remain unaltered with the exception of the feed supply to the scratch area. The cost of conversion of each enrichable module will be approximately $70 to $75. In addition, stocking density will be decreased from 67inches2 per hen to 118inches2 per hen or a 40% reduction from 108 to 61 hens per 12-foot module.
The impact of the availability of enrichable cages was noted by Terry Pollard, Marketing Manager for Big Dutchman. He indicated that in mid-2009, 60% of prospective clients were considering purchase of enrichable systems. By the end of 2010 this had increased to 90% of prospects requesting quotations. During the past year AVEC systems represented over 90% of the Company’s sales of confined systems.
Chore Time has developed their own line of enrichable cages with three units of between 150,000 to 200,000 hens currently in production with additional houses on order or undergoing installation. The European manufacturers including Farmer Automatic, Facco and Techno have enrichable cages in their product programs which are essentially European models conforming to Directive 1999/74/CE, adapted to be compatible to U.S. conditions.
The future of welfare
The bottom line for U.S. egg producers is that welfare is a significant driver for production systems and that decisions made in 2011 will influence production techniques, marketing and profitability for at least two decades. Whether considering shell egg or liquid production, producers are acutely aware of the additional capital costs represented by both equipment and housing associated with units operated at low density with welfare refinements.
The question arises as to whether consumers are willing to compensate producers for the additional costs involved in enriched cage systems. The interim but necessary selection of enrichable cages may be regarded as an insurance against future marketing or legislated imperatives which may cause conventional cages to be obsolete by the middle of this decade. There do not appear to be any production-related advantages associated with enhancing “welfare” of cage systems since the major white-feathered strains of hens housed according to current UEP standards achieve their genetic potential under optimal conditions of nutrition, management and prevention of disease.