March 16, 2012
In the United States, for every citizen, there is roughly one laying hen. The majority of these birds are confined in battery cages, wire enclosures that typically afford each bird a space smaller than a single sheet of letter-sized paper.
This system is poised to undergo several major changes. Two unlikely allies, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the United Egg Producers (UEP), are jointly working toward the enactment of H.R. 3798, a federal amendment that would afford laying hens several welfare measures. These include a gradual shift from battery cages to “enriched colony cages,” more spacious enclosures outfitted with perches, nest boxes and scratching areas. Enriched colony cages would allow birds greater freedom of movement and the ability to perform certain natural behaviors.
The proposed changes are not a panacea, but they offer several notable improvements to public health and animal welfare.
Over recent years, HSUS has campaigned against the use of battery cages, citing animal welfare and food safety concerns. The PEW Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, in which our Center was actively involved, also took a strong stance against the use of battery cages. In response to public pressure, Michigan and California have passed laws to phase out the use of battery cages, while various food retailers have agreed to switch to cage-free eggs (Burger King, Wendy’s and many others).
These changes did not come about without a fight. HSUS has regularly clashed with UEP, a group representing the majority of the U.S. egg industry. Both organizations have spent millions of dollars over proposals to ban battery cages.
Rather than continuing to wage costly battles, the leaders of both organizations opted to seek out common ground. The dialogue began when Gene Gregory, president of the UEP, reached out to Wayne Pacelle, president of the HSUS. After several months of negotiation, they agreed on H.R. 3798 as a compromise. More details on this historic agreement are available from NPR, Time Magazine and an earlier post on the Livable Future Blog.
One of the prevailing food safety concerns regarding egg production is contamination with Salmonella, a bacterium that causes a reported 40,000 cases of illness in the United States annually.
Based on the limited amount of research in this area, it is uncertain as to whether a switch from battery cages to enriched colony cages would lower the prevalence of Salmonella in hens and their eggs. Although the evidence is not unequivocal, stocking density—the number of birds per cubic foot—may be a risk factor for Salmonella infection in laying hens. If this is the case, the additional space afforded by enriched colony cages may reduce levels of Salmonella contamination in eggs.
The proposed amendment also calls for a ban on forced molting, a practice that involves withholding food from birds for up to two weeks. This results in a temporary break in egg production, but a net increase in the number of eggs produced over a bird’s lifespan. Withholding food also induces considerable stress in birds, suppressing their immune system and increasing their susceptibility to Salmonella infection. For this reason, the ban on forced molting may lower levels of Salmonella in eggs.
Another measure included in H.R. 3798 is a cap on allowable ammonia levels within hen houses. The gas is emitted from animal waste, and can reach high concentrations in enclosed environments. Exposed workers often suffer from skin, eye, throat and lung irritation; exposure to very high concentrations can cause respiratory damage in both hens and humans. Measures to reduce levels of this airborne pollutant can benefit both public health and animal welfare.
I asked Paul Shapiro, Senior Director of Farm Animal Protection at HSUS, for his perspectives on H.R. 3798 from an animal welfare standpoint. “The proposed changes won’t move birds onto ‘Old MacDonald’s farm,’ by any means,” he explained. “But between barren [battery] cages and enriched colony cages, the enriched cages are certainly an improvement.” Paul added that cage-free systems have far greater welfare potential for the birds, but without sufficient political will, a national mandate in favor of cage-free systems remains out of reach. Additional information on egg production and animal welfare is available through HSUS.
The changes proposed by H.R. 3798 are substantial, if not revolutionary. Some might argue that a cage is still a cage; I argue that a larger, furnished cage, accompanied by welfare measures such as the ban on forced molting, is an improvement worth pursuing—particularly if some of those changes have the potential to reduce food safety risks.
It remains to be seen, however, whether the amendments will be passed by Congress. The National Pork Producers Council is one of numerous industry groups in opposition to the bill, saying it would set a “dangerous precedent” for federal involvement in food animal production. Among the bill’s supporters are the American Veterinary Medical Association, Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Farm Sanctuary and many other organizations. The amendment also has the support of Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD), a longtime champion of animal protection. The bill is, in his words, “The right thing to do.”
Stay tuned to the HSUS website to follow this groundbreaking legislation.