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Letter From The Editor: “Cage free” wins out , but at what cost?

Saturday, March 18, 2017 22:00
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Hens are getting new housing all across America and it’s all going to be “cage free.”

The “cage free” campaign has won, largely by focusing on market decision-makers.   It did have one major political victory back in 2008 when California passed Proposition 2.

However in the marketplace,  the “cage-free ” campaign has been running the table.   They now have virtually every corporate egg buyer clamoring for “cage free” eggs.

Retail and restaurant chains by the dozens have pledged to make the switch to only “cage free ” eggs,  most by the year 2025.    This market demand is sparking a huge building boom in new hen housing.  Previously, as many as 95 percent of egg-producing hens are housed in battery cages, systems that provide food and water, and collect the eggs, but in tight quarters when fully populated.

Accommodating all that 2025 demand will require investments of at least $10 billion, according to industry estimates.

The “cage free” campaign has won, no question about it.    They way they’ve done it, however, has been to  never expose their solution  to comparison information or allow people to think about how those hens raised on the floor “are more likely to encounter disease carriers in feces or dampened litter, potentially leading to reduced health.”

Or that  cannibalism and pecking is greater in cage free systems” or that “litter-based systems have been show to have increased levels of ammonia, dust, and bacteria.”

Housing for hens, cage-free; free-range, enriched colony units or conventional battery cages each have their advantages and disadvantages.  Darrin Karcher, assistant professor of animal Science at Purdue University, is one poultry expert who has published  such comparisons.

Nor did the liberal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals recently let animal activists get away with saying cage-free eggs are safer or more nutritious. A 3-judge panel agreed with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that scientific studies do not find cage-free eggs  safer or more nutritious .

Meanwhile, midwestern states led by Iowa are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review the California law that limits the sale of eggs in the state to only those from cage-free housing.  Eggs from other housing types are currently barred from the California market.

No one seems to be asking if this potential $10 billion investment is going to buy us either more food safety  or improved nutrition.  Nor are the various housing types being “stress tested” for biosecurity as the current avian flu epidemic is not over.

The building boom, however, is underway.

Remington, IN-based Summit Livestock Facilities is building the largest cage free facility in the world for two of the nation’s largest egg producers, Rose Acre Farms and Cal-Maine Foods.  Summit is building  a multi-building facility providing a care-free home to 1.8 million laying hens for the production of 650 million cage-free eggs a year

Summit is promising “cage free” hen housing “in  more humane environment that’s designed to decrease chicken stress levels, increase feed consumption and improve survival rates.”

Another example is Central Valley Eggs, LLC, which has a 36 million eggs per month facility under construction in Kern County, CA.   All “cage-free.”

The nation’s largest recall of shell eggs came in 2010 during a nationwide outbreak of Salmonella Enteritidis (SE).

We learned then that SE  from eggs is fairly common.  So much so that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) at about the same time  came out with guidelines to reduce the contamination  by 60 percent; and  to reduce SE by 79,000 cases and 30 deaths a year. Along with storage and transportation, preventive measures built into poultry houses are included in the guidance.

The construction boom  to meet the cage-free market demand  needs to include  safer and more healthy eggs as  part of the mix.   And before this building gets too far along,  FDA should  review how we are doing under the current egg rules and what might be incorporated into this next generation of housing to cut down on SE.



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