On a recent trip to Europe I had the opportunity to visit some free-range layer houses. The barns look much like the other layer houses that I saw on my visit, they just had the “dog doors” on the side of the house. Just like “pasture-raised” hen farms in the U.S., there are no barriers to exposure to rodents, birds or insects for hens outside the house.
I couldn’t help but think of the lengths that U.S. egg producers go to, whether in houses equipped with cages or aviaries, to keep rodents and flies out of their houses. The measures are undertaken for biosecurity reasons, both to protect the health of the hens and to insure the safety of the eggs for consumers.
Media coverage of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) inspection reports of Rose Acre’s Hyde County, North Carolina, cage-housed layer farm, which has been implicated in a Salmonellosis outbreak, has sensationalized the sightings of rodents in the houses. I have worked in meat plants, so I know it is rather easy for an inspector who sees evidence of an insect or rodent to call it an infestation on a non-compliance report.
I can only imagine what an inspection report would read like after a free-range farm is implicated in a Salmonellosis outbreak. Every ant hill on range could be characterized as an insect infestation. White Oak Pastures, an organic egg producer in Georgia, has reportedly been providing sustenance for a very large group of bald eagles. The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act limits what can be done to keep these birds away from the layers. Other farms have fox and coyote problems.
Consumers don’t understand that outdoor access means more hen mortality and a greater food safety risk.