Egg Producers Open Their Minds To Opening Hen Cages
“Why are you advocating for cage-free systems…I thought you cared about hens?”
It was a pointed question posed to me by a veterinary microbiologist colleague, and it initially took me by surprise. To my advocate brain, the case had seemed black and white: Cages are bad, we can tell everyone how bad they are, hens will be freed and live happy, high-welfare lives — wasn’t it straightforward? However, my academic brain was about to show me otherwise.
Caged Vs. Cage-Free Systems: What Does The Science Say?
Beyond the benefit of production efficiency and ease, proponents of confining hens into conventional laying cages have also argued that it is comparatively better for the hens themselves. The shock is, in some limited ways they are actually right. “Hens in cage-free systems are far more susceptible to certain diseases and parasites migrating through the flock, and it is difficult to identify illness and treat sick birds when they’re not as immediately visible as they are in a cage,” my colleague told me. Reviews of the science show that disease and parasite transmission aren’t the only hen welfare issues with cage-free egg systems.
From a welfare perspective, disease (albeit mostly treatable with good management) is an entirely legitimate concern. Birds, however, are more than a sum total of their disease risk and parasite burden at any given time. As with humans, their welfare is also impacted by their psychological state, their freedom to express natural behaviors, and their ability to make any choices in their lives. Imagine if we, as humans, locked ourselves in the cupboard at home for the rest of our lives. There is no doubt we would be exposed to fewer diseases, but it is safe to say our welfare would be far from okay.
Hens confined into conventional laying cages experience extreme behavioral restriction, musculoskeletal weakness, and an inability to experience positive affective states. All things considered, the weighted animal welfare conclusion is that shifting hens out of conventional cages is far better for hens from a welfare standpoint, but that hen welfare in free-ranging systems is vastly variable and dependent on good management.
Responding To Demand
The most surefire way to avoid all the issues with egg production systems is for human beings to stop eating eggs. Realistically, though, most of the world eats eggs. Global egg demand has increased faster than meat and dairy — nearly 4.5x in the last 50 years — and it continues to grow rapidly rather than decline. To meet those demands in the cheapest and most efficient way they know how, most egg producers around the world use conventional cages.
There we have our impasse. Are egg producers immovable on this front and uninterested in offering solutions to improve hen welfare? Can they be convinced to move away from a system that we know is deeply detrimental to the animals it relies on? These questions had us tossing and turning at night, so we asked them.
Learning From Asia’s Egg Producers
In a first-of-its-kind study in Asia (the biggest egg production region in the world by a huge margin), we approached 165 cage-based producers in China, Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, and Thailand to discuss the potential for transitioning to cage-free systems. Not only did they graciously agree to participate in our study, they also mostly agreed that cage-free systems could be feasible in their countries (65%). This level of general receptivity to the idea of going cage-free is unprecedented and hugely compelling.
Producers also discussed the pros and cons of a cage-free shift and even offered valuable insight into the conditions in which they would make the move — strategic “cheat-code” insights straight from the source for animal advocacy. While producers readily accepted that cage-free systems were better for animal welfare, they also identified access to specialized markets, improved brand image, low investment cost (infrastructure), increased sale price, and improved product quality among the most compelling reasons to ditch the cage.
So, what’s stopping them from transitioning away from cage-based systems? They told us it’s about the availability of land large enough to host cage-free farms and the cost of producing eggs less intensively. Just as I’d heard from my colleague, producers were also concerned about perceived difficulties in the management of a cage-free system and the mitigation of diseases in a flock interacting with each other and encountering more environmental diversity.
Fortunately, egg producers were also ready to share solutions to some of these challenges, with over 200 suggestions made and some of the solutions pointing to tangible initiatives. Approximately 40% of these solutions pertained to egg industry developments, including using technology and innovation to improve on-farm management practices (such as food distribution, flock sizes, and behavioral management); providing information about disease mitigation, biosecurity, and food safety strategies; and offering training on cage-free planning and demonstrations of the benefits of shifting to cage-free. Alongside industry developments, approximately 20% of the posed solutions were focused on market developments including increasing the profit margin, the price people will pay for eggs, and the demand for cage-free eggs.
Increasing Global Cage-Free Demand
Generating a market for improved welfare products relies on harnessing and building on a consumer appetite to do so, and in most areas of the world outside of Europe, the U.K, the U.S., and Canada, we have had very little idea how people feel about eggs and hen welfare. This brings us to the findings of another recent study where we surveyed egg consumers in 14 geographically and culturally-diverse countries (Australia, Bangladesh, Brazil, Chile, China, India, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, Sudan, Thailand, the U.K., and the U.S.). Echoing the conclusions of a previous Faunalytics study, we found that people acknowledge that chickens can feel pain and emotions.
In this study, we also found that most people around the world care that hens producing eggs don’t suffer and that, importantly, they say they would prefer to buy eggs from hens who are not in cages. This finding included consumers in countries where cage-free eggs are not readily available, and where there has been no large-scale, cage-free campaigning to date. This represents a significant opportunity for market growth in higher welfare products.
Although all countries in this study predominantly produce eggs in conventional cages (with the only exceptions being Australia and the U.K.), consumers demonstrated frequent uncertainty as to the egg production systems that were dominant in their country. This indicates that we need to improve the clarity and consistency of campaign information to avoid confusing consumers. In general, this study showed us that while global egg consumption is not slowing at this moment in time, there is a real opportunity to engage consumers into accepting increased welfare measures as the markets evolve.
Reaching Across The Divide
To expedite real change for hens, it is important to understand all the perspectives and to listen to all the stakeholders involved in this issue. Although animal welfare and the path to animal protection may seem black and white in advocacy, the reality of driving positive change is rarely so. It is time to reach across tables and have open, honest, and respectful discussions with egg producers and other stakeholders to enact the most good possible for non-human animals. We must acknowledge the limitations of our expertise and be ready to collaborate to find solutions.
In summary, while neither system of egg production is perfect, the evidence consistently shows that conventional cage-based systems are more detrimental to hen welfare. However, producers have given us an insight into a potential path away from these systems, and global consumers have expressed an appetite that is ripe for it. Our research found that the barriers producers faced in shifting towards improved welfare models were real and significant — however, they were not deemed insurmountable. Egg producers are opening their minds to opening cages, and the onus is on all of us to work together to speed it up.