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Animal Welfare and the Science of Today

Animal Welfare can be a contentious issue, particularly when standards determined to be of benefit conflict with any of the globally recognized “Five Freedoms” that are the very definition of the term or they cause food shortages due to producers’ inability to meet the standards. That conflict has recently been at issue in relation to egg-laying hens, as consumer advocacy has led regulators and standard bearers to issue requirements for expanded individual space and outdoor access, which have carried with them new challenges.

The most recent development arose in Massachusetts with a 2016 regulation set to become effective on January 1, 2022. The law requires that egg-laying hens be able to spread both wings without touching the side of an enclosure or other hen, and that each has access to at least 1.5 square feet of usable floor space. However, producers and lawmakers are now contending that egg production has changed significantly in the five years since the passage of the law, with many producers now using vertical, instead of horizontal aviaries allowing space for hens to fly upward, perch and roost.

Thus bills have been introduced that would reduce the required space to 1.0 square feet in aviaries that allow “unfettered access to vertical space.” If the bills do not pass and the 2016 regulation is allowed to stand, it is expected that there will be very few egg producers able to comply with the rule, leading to both an egg shortage and price increases. While one could argue that profit is taking precedence over animal health, a change to the “cage-free” definition for multi-tier aviary systems is being supported by animal rights activists who backed the original 2016 measure. Which brings us to the question: what do the claims on egg packaging, such as cage-free, really mean?

In the U.S., some claims fall under specific USDA regulations, including:

  • Cage-free/free-roaming. Hens are allowed to roam in a room or open area, which is typically a barn or poultry house.
  • Free-range/pasture-fed. Hens raised outdoors or with access to outdoors. In addition to the feed provided, these hens may also eat wild plants and insects.
  • Organic. Hens are uncaged, free to roam in their houses and have access to the outdoors; they are fed an organic diet of feed produced without conventional pesticides or fertilizers.

In Canada,

  • Of the above terms, only organic has a specific standard, and the term “free run” is also used, generally meaning that the hens are raised cage-free but indoors.

While some animal welfare advocates feel that only cage-free, open-door conditions should be acceptable, there are both food safety and Five Freedoms counters to that assertion. Accepted as the gold standard of animal welfare, the Five Freedoms include freedom (1) from hunger and thirst; (2) from discomfort; (3) from pain, injury, and disease; (4) from fear and distress; and (5) to express normal and natural behavior. However, ensuring the Five Freedoms can be difficult, particularly because the greater the unfettered autonomy the hens have to do and roam as they will (e.g., #5), the more the other four freedoms can be negated.

To explain: Some of the areas of challenge that facilities need to consider when determining the most beneficial conditions for the hens, resulting eggs, and the business include:

  • In relation to food safety, as has been evidenced by the number of Salmonella outbreaks linked to backyard poultry, free-range eggs have a higher likelihood of exposure to hazardous microbes such as Salmonella and E. coli. Often attributable to lack of management practices within these facilities, it poses a risk to human health, as the chance of being exposed to the foodborne disease pathogens is more likely in free-range systems. Thus, as the study authors state, “it is for this reason that we must be vigilant regarding our egg handling practices, especially in free-range systems where the risk of salmonella exposure is significantly higher.”
  • The greater the freedom the hens are given, the more difficult it can be to detect and identify issues of illness or disease. This can then cause a delay in treatment and potential for further spread among the hens.
  • Hens have a natural tendency toward cannibalism when stressed. This can result from a variety of situations, including poor management practices, disruption of the pecking order through the addition or removal of hens; brightly lit nests or shortage of nesting boxes; abrupt changes in environment, etc. The stress can cause a hen to pick the feathers, comb, toes or vent of another, and once an open wound or blood is visible on the bird, the vicious habit of cannibalism can spread rapidly through the entire flock. And, as explained in All About Eggs by Rachel Khong, cage-free facilities actually have more hen-on-hen violence than facilities that use cages.

It is because of such factors that cages were initially implemented and considered to be based on the best science of the time. However, it is not to infer that caged systems are ideal or based on the best science of today. But it does demonstrate the need for a thorough understanding of hen behavior in various situations and the need for applied controls for each. Producers must carefully consider their processes and related challenges, and enact the necessary and proper stewardship for each.

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