How do you like your eggs: cage-free or scrambled?

Before I say anything, let’s get some terminology and farming practices down. Broiler and fryer chickens are for eating. Layer chickens are for laying eggs. Broilers and fryers are not raised in battery cages. They are also slaughtered before they reach the age when they become aggressive. Layers are raised in battery cages, usually. They reach the age of aggression and they fight. To mitigate the damage that may occur in a fight, the tips of the beaks are clipped. Whether or not pain is involved depends on age, method, a lot of things, but that’s not the topic of today’s piece. Finally, no matter what you do, layers are prone to osteoporosis. It comes of all the calcium they use to form the eggshells on their eggs.

Okay! Let’s go.

I can understand why a person would have a problem with the poultry industry. I really do. Yes, laying hens are kept in cramped battery cages. No, they can’t stretch out and walk around, and yes, they are prone to leg problems and behavioral problems.

But do NOT assume cage-free is better.

This is the dilemma we face in the States. Certain animal rights groups (notably, the HSUS) and others who don’t understand poultry farming oversimplify a complex issue in order to pass feel-good legislature that really doesn’t help. Here’s the deal: cage and cage-free systems both have different welfare problems.

What do we see in a cage-free system?

First up, we have group housing, indoors. I’m not talking backyard farming, I’m talking production-size farming. Chickens fight. They will kill and eat their housing mates. Air quality is poor. Diseases and parasites run rampant, as there is no buffer against the spread of infectious diseases. Broken bones happen. Chickens will injure themselves more often, as now they are free do to so. Fear and hysteria rises. Mortality is way up.

Then, we have the outdoor housing problems. Predation. Humans aren’t the only ones who like to eat chicken–coyotes do too. Again, parasites, diseases and bone fractures. Mortality, way up.

Battery cages were, and are, an effort to correct those problems. But what are our new problems when we use battery cages? Chickens lack bone strength, and they may still get bone-related injuries. They can’t exhibit their natural behaviors anymore: they can’t perch, they can’t nest, they can’t dustbathe, and they can’t forage.

But wait! There’s a second kind of cage—an Enriched Cage—that might not be so bad.

Enriched Cages are an attempt to mitigate the problems posed by caging and cage-free systems. You can see the last URL in today’s article for a live “hen cam” of this system. It is a form of group housing, with areas that allow the chickens to exhibit their natural behaviors: dustbathing, roosting and the use of a nest box. The disease level and cannibalism level is intermediate to that of either existing system. If I had to choose between (A) being a little picked on and a little sick or (B) being potentially eaten by my roommate and dying from plague, I think I pick option A.

And here’s the sad truth. Because it’s still a cage, and because the chickens can’t all fully extend their wings and turn around without touching each other (see Proposition 2 of California, 2008), certain animal rights groups say this isn’t good enough. They want it outlawed. “No animal should live in a cage” and all that. In all honesty? It makes my blood boil. The data clearly shows that cage-free is horrendous in comparison. Isn’t the enriched caging system better than the system they are pushing–general group housing?

And here’s another thing. Legislation like that of Proposition 2 scares farmers. Why? Too vague. It’s not a hard number to follow, and they risk being shut down for a violation when they thought they were following the rules.

And as a last point. A small farm that houses a few chickens that are well taken care of can’t meet the market demand for eggs. And, while in the beef and pork industries, your primary concern is size–and happy cattle and pigs grow better–eggs is a game of numbers. How many can you crank out? Because they’re coming daily no matter what. The cost of happy chickens doesn’t balance. And it’s not the farmer’s fault–if they don’t meet the market demand, they go out of business and now they can’t feed their own families. The best way to address animal welfare in the food industry is to be clever and make it profitable and humane, as is the case with just about every other animal in the industry.

So, you want to feel good about eating eggs? Visit your local egg farms and decide which ones you like. Or raise your own laying hens (I’ve heard mixed things from friends who own chickens—some fight, some play nice. This is thought to be related to population size). Or, you can just trust me and give enriched cages a little extra “hurrah!”

See also:

https://www.avma.org/KB/Resources/Reference/AnimalWelfare/Pages/AVMA-issues-A-Comparison-of-Cage-and-Non-Cage-Systems-for-Housing-Laying-Hens.aspx

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proposition_2 (I apologize for using wikipedia as a resource, but the official text of Proposition 2 is now a dead link)

http://www.laywel.eu/web/xmlappservletfc2c.html?action=ProcessSelection&REDIRECT_TEMPLATE=ShowPage&SAVE_PARAMETER_SAV_SOURCE_DATABASE_NAME=/flexyz/projects/wur/fx_cm_laywel.nsf&SAVE_PARAMETER_SAV_DESIGN_CHOICE=interzorg/default&SAVE_PARAMETER_SAV_TEMPLATE_NAME=frontpage&SAVE_PARAMETER_SAV_SOURCE_DOCUMENT_NAME=furnished&SAVE_PARAMETER_SAV_NO_CACHE=TRUE%09

http://www.jswest.com/index.php/component/content/article/119

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