The  initial findings report for the Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply was released recently and it presents preliminary results for some of the measurements taken from the two-flock study. The research tracks animal well-being, environmental, food safety, worker safety and affordability measurements for eggs produced from hens housed in conventional cages, enriched colonies and aviaries on a commercial farm. This three-year project will provide a comparison of these three housing alternatives for hens in these five areas of sustainability using the best available science to measure indicators such as ammonia concentration in the house, feather condition, egg production and myriad others.

The conclusions drawn from five bird welfare measurements were presented in the report in a table (see Table 1). If I interpret the table correctly, the enriched colony scores best on claw length and foot problems and tied for best with conventional cages on feather cleanliness. The aviary scores best on lowest feather lipids and best feather coverage. In addition to tying for best on feather cleanliness, conventional cages produced the fewest keel abnormalities. Does this mean that enriched colonies are better for bird welfare because they were best or tied for best on three of the five measurements?

I was left wondering about the relative importance of each of these five measurements. For instance, is claw length just as important as keel deformities? In addition to the welfare measurements, there are various measurements of affordability, worker safety, food safety and quality as well as environmental measurements being taken. How do all of these rate versus one another?

Even with employing the best technology and scientific procedures, how we rate the relative merits of the measurements within categories and between categories is still going to be a subjective exercise. Unless there is a clear-cut winner across all categories, it is easy to envision reasonable people reaching different conclusions, and I wouldn’t typically categorize activist groups as reasonable.

I hope that the egg producers understand that, ultimately, these research results will only have value if they are used to identify problem areas for the housing alternatives and efforts are made to correct them. For instance, aviaries score poorly in the environment category because of high ammonia and dust levels in certain times during the year. Some bright folks working for equipment companies can probably come up with a solution for this, like, for instance, some easy means of removing the litter and replacing it with fresh bedding while the flock is in the house.

I’m glad that egg retailers and food service outlets are involved in this process, because they understand that consumers are already making subjective decisions when they are making choices about the type of food they buy. Unfortunately, these subjective choices are being influenced far more by activist group misinformation than they are by facts. Whatever the outcome of this study, egg producers will need to do a better job of conveying facts in a manner consumers can understand and relate to, because it is subjective evaluations that consumers will make that will really decide the future of the U.S. egg industry.

Table 1

       
 
Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply (CSES) study flocks 1 & 2
 
 
Welfare Quality Conclusions
 
 
Measure
Conventional
Enriched
Aviary
 




 
Claw length
Intermediate
Shortest
Longest
 
Foot problems
Highest incidence
Intermediate incidence
Most severe
 
Keel abnormalities
Fewest
Intermediate
Most
 
Feather cleanliness
Relatively clean
Relatively clean
Dirtiest
 
Feather lipids
Highest
Intermediate
Lowest
 
Feather cover
Throat and belly
Throat, belly and head
Head