Monday, February 18, 2008

Mandating cage-free eggs by law?

The Humane Society of the United States is trying to put an initiative on the ballot here in California this November to ban the use of cages in raising laying hens. Considering Californians purchased 8.2 billion eggs in 2006, you can imagine a successful initiative would have a rather large effect on the $6 Billion egg industry.

What's the fuss? The Sacramento Bee has created a great info-graphic showing the difference between caged and cage-free henhouses. You can see why the cage-free eggs cost more at the store: the space requirements are greater and that means the literal overhead costs are higher.

But are cage-free chickens really better off than their caged sisters? It's not as simple an answer as you'd think.

A team of researchers led by Joy Mench of UC Davis, and Janice Swanson and Paul Thompson, both of Michigan State University is getting $400,000 from the American Egg Board to do the planning phase of a study to find what are the most humane and commercially viable methods for housing egg-laying chickens.

"The primary drawback of a conventional cage system is that it restricts the hen's movement and some of her natural behaviors," said Mench, an animal science professor and director of UC Davis' Center for Animal Welfare.

However, Mench says that hens that roam free of cages, in barns or outside, are more likely to fall victim to cannibalism or to health problems associated with increased exposure to their manure. Furthermore, most laying hens suffer from osteoporosis, and cage-free hens are more likely than caged hens to break bones while moving through the barn or on the range. Mench also notes that the cage-free systems are expensive and would likely result in higher egg prices for consumers.

While there are no simple answers, Mench suggests that one of the most promising alternatives appears to be "furnished cages," which European producers have begun to use in recent years. These larger cages provide areas where hens can nest, perch and dust-bathe -- all important natural behaviors. The cost of producing eggs in furnished cages is comparable to conventional cages, according to Mench.

According to animal behavior experts, a contented chicken only needs room for a dust bath, a nest and a place to perch. Thanks to our Eglu we've got all three of these in our backyard for Sophia and ZsuZsu. No wonder their eggs are so good and plentiful.

1 comment:

Linda said...

So, what does a "furnished cage" look like? Either way (cage or cage-free) these poor birds are really crowded, since that's the nature of industrialized farming. Yes, thank goodness our hens have all of these "basic requirements", plus more: fresh air, sunlight, places to scratch (how could scratching not be on the list of "basic needs?" Chickens LOVE to scratch!), and exposure to weather. Yes, exposure to weather can be good and bad, but it gives them some variety and stimulation to be in the outdoors so much.

Speaking of weather, it will likely reach a HIGH of 15 here today. I'm still amazed that the hens seem to be perfectly able to cope with the cold, snow, and ice so well. Despite it all, every time they hear me coming out the back door, they charge out of their run to stand at the gate and beg for treats: leftover greens and veggie peelings, sunflower seeds, mealworms, etc.


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