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How Do Cage-free Regulations Really Impact Food Safety?

State regulations banning cages for egg-laying chickens seem to be picking up steam. Early this month, Colorado became the sixth state to require the production and/or sale of only cage-free eggs. The Colorado legislation requiring that all facilities convert to cage-free housing of egg-producing hens by 2025, follows similar legislation in California, Oregon, Washington, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Michigan, with bills pending in other states. California’s law, the soonest to take effect, is required by 2022.

While the impetus for the laws and general cage-free initiatives, is that of humane treatment of animals, there is not only some question as to the health and well-being of cage-free vs. caged hens, there also is the significant question of food safety of the eggs produced.

In fact, the president of the National Association of Egg Farmers himself “set the record straight” on caged hens in a July FSN Letter to the Editor, citing various research, among which were:

  • A report from The U.S. Animal Health Association stating “Ascarids (round worms) are increasingly being found in cage-free operations with the concern being the possibility of a consumer finding an egg with a roundworm contained inside. Most cage-free egg producers have had such an occurrence.”
  • A study in The Journal Food Control showing that cages became the preferred method of producing safer eggs because the wire slats on which they stand allows feces to fall to a manure collection system beneath the hens. The eggs of cage-free hens are laid on shavings in nest boxes remaining in contact with hens, shavings, and fecal material until they are collected, resulting in higher Enterobacteriaceae counts.
  • Research from the Egg Industry Center in Ames, IA, which found that today’s hens are living longer due to better health, better nutrition and better living environments.
  • Penn State research findings that eggs from small flocks of chickens are more likely to be contaminated with Salmonella enteritidis as eggs sold in grocery stores, which typically come from larger flocks of caged layers.

In addition to these, a 2020 Purdue University study found that Salmonella infection can spread rapidly and extensively among hens in cage-free indoor housing, Additionally, beak trimming has “a dramatic impact” on the potential for the northern fowl mite infestations in cage-free flock, that can result in reduced egg production and quality, and hen welfare. On the other hand, intact beaks can contribute to flock cannibalism, feather loss, and reduced egg production – essentially making it a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” consideration for cage-free hens.

While all this is not to advocate for caged housing that confines hens to little or no movement, it is intended to ensure that factual food safety and animal welfare are given full accounting when such laws are considered and enacted – rather than simply bowing to public perception. This also is essential because the laws will have a significant impact on costs for both the egg industry and consumers, and any post-enactment outbreaks are likely to put the producers under an even more intense spotlight.


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