The Battery Ban And Beyond: Layer Hen Welfare Internationally
There are more chickens than any other domesticated animal in the world, with over 20 billion individuals on the planet at any given time. The majority of chickens are raised for meat and eggs. Archeological evidence shows that eggs have been a staple food for humans for thousands of years and today, over a trillion are consumed annually across the planet. Our domestication of the red jungle fowl (Gallus gallus) – the ancestor of domestic chickens today – is known to have been well-established 8000 years ago, but recent molecular research suggests that it may have started as early as 58,000 years ago.
Since the industrialization of animal production in the 1960s, chickens, alongside other farmed animals, have been subject to large-scale production systems characterized by inhumane treatment and confinement. Though we’ve known about the detriments of this type of confinement as far back as the 70s, the last few decades have provided animal advocates with a growing body of research showing that farmed animals, including chickens, lead much more complex lives than previously thought. According to recent studies, chickens are as emotionally, socially and cognitively complex as many other birds and mammals. Newly-hatched chicks can perform basic arithmetic, and studies suggest that chickens have self-awareness and show empathy. This, of course, comes as no surprise to animal advocates. However, because of peoples’ limited exposure to chickens (when they are alive), there is the stubborn assumption that they are simple-minded animals. This stereotype makes it easier for people to consume eggs and meat from factory farms and reinforces a general lack of concern for chickens. In fact, these inquisitive, intelligent birds are known as “the most abused animals in the world” due to the sheer scale of suffering for the billions of individuals slaughtered for meat and raised for eggs.
For egg-laying hens, this includes confinement to battery cages, debeaking, the slaughter of male chicks, constant artificial lighting and the use of antibiotics. In reaction to the intensification of egg production, animal advocates, and increasingly also consumers, tend to focus mainly on housing systems as a key aspect of egg-layer welfare: this includes caged (barren battery cages and slightly more spacious and enriched cages), barn/aviary, and free-range. In the public eye, more space equals higher welfare. Researchers call this focus on housing systems in the public discourse animal housing reductionism, while some argue that crowded barns are actually more stressful for birds than cages, due to flock size and stocking density.
High-income countries have seen a growing demand for higher animal welfare regulations over the last few decades, leading to the abolition of some confinement systems. Housing conditions for egg-laying chickens have improved over the last decade and there has been a shift towards free-range systems.
In a recent study, a group of researchers from the University of Melbourne compared layer hen welfare in the U.S., U.K., and Australia, finding similarities and differences both in legislative action, labeling and certification standards, and market segmentation. This data was gathered in 2017, and while there have since been some additional improvements to layer hen welfare, there are valuable lessons to learn from these case studies.
Improving animal welfare involves government regulation: defining minimum space standards by law, for example, and market segmentation: differentiating types of production and implementing private quality assurance and labeling standards. In the latter, which can be described as a marketization of animal welfare attributes, producers and other market stakeholders are often seen as passive, simply responding to existing demands from consumers.
Four different models have been identified to describe the status of farmed animal welfare throughout the E.U.. The ‘no issue’ model exists in countries where the majority of people are unaware or disinterested in animal welfare. The terroir model dominates the discourse in Italy and France, where animal welfare is mainly seen as an aspect of food quality. Scandinavian countries typically exhibit a welfare state model where citizens value animal welfare highly, but believe government regulation rather than market dynamics should drive welfare improvements. The (super)market model in the U.K. has strong regulations but also a significant commercialization of animal welfare by large corporations.
U.S.: Until very recently, 95% of eggs in the U.S. came from hens in battery cages. In the absence of Federal regulations, most states have had few welfare regulations for farmed animals; similarly to Australia, farmed animals are in fact exempt from the animal cruelty laws that apply to other animals. In the U.S., the agriculture industry is largely protected by Federal and State governments, preventing bills from reaching the floor of Congress and imposing so-called ‘ag-gag’ laws restricting animal advocates from reporting abuse. In recent years, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) has targeted states and lobbied for a ban on battery cages. California voters passed a ballot in 2008 to phase out battery cages by 2015, however, the Humane Farming Association and other animal rights groups criticized this ballot for misleading voters into thinking it would ban all cages, not just battery cages. Other Western and Midwestern states have since passed similar legislation, with HSUS providing leadership and support.
In 2011, HSUS cooperated with the United Egg Producers (UEP), the industry peak body, on a Federal bill in favor of larger, enriched colony cages. While a strategic move by HSUS, it did cause controversy among animal advocates. Nevertheless, this case demonstrated the increasing influence of advocates in shaping regulations and policies. Other groups including Compassion Over Killing and Farm Sanctuary have since taken the USDA and other industries and regulators to court to improve regulations.
In 2018, HSUS and a coalition of other advocacy groups scored a big victory in the push for better welfare for egg-laying chickens with the passage of Proposition 12 in California. Beginning in 2020, Proposition 12 is set to ban the confinement of egg-laying hens (chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, and guinea fowl) in areas with less than 1 square foot of usable floor space per hen, and beginning in 2022, it will ban the confinement of egg-laying hens in areas other than indoor or outdoor cage-free housing systems based on the United Egg Producers’ 2017 cage-free guidelines.
U.K.: In the E.U., there have been legislative measures improving farmed animal welfare since the 1980s, when minimum standards for cages were established (4.5 square meters per hen) and in the late 1990s when a directive was issued to completely phase out battery cages by 2012. This directive followed years of advocacy by groups like Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) and was indeed implemented in 2012, however, the compliance of some member states has since come into question. While this directive could be viewed as an example of strong government action, producers had 13 years to implement changes, making it a fairly easy transition. Because they transitioned so recently, a total E.U. cage ban is unlikely in the near future. It’s worth noting here that public opinion research from the U.K. has shown that consumers are generally shocked to find out just how chickens are raised.
Australia: Government welfare protections for farmed animals largely consist of non-mandatory, unenforced standards, and similarly to the U.S., farmed animals are exempt from animal cruelty laws. In recent years, some minor regulations have been introduced to improve welfare for layer hens, making battery cages more spacious but not moving towards a ban. Free-range hens in Australia must have access to an outdoor range for eight hours per day. The maximum outdoor stocking density is 1,500 birds per hectare, significantly lower than in the U.K. However, if they are rotated across pastures, significantly higher stocking densities are allowed.
U.S.: Cage-free production increased from 4 to 10% in the U.S. between 2010 and 2016. A large portion of that was organic production, divided into small-scale pasture systems and large-scale barn systems with access to covered concrete porches. The USDA-Organic standards, with few minimum space requirements, were amended by the Obama administration in 2016, however, these amendments have not been adopted by the current administration. Still, the U.S. has a long history of animal advocates targeting fast-food chains and food corporations, and the egg industry has in recent years begun to make incremental changes to meet consumer demand for higher welfare. From 2016 to 2020, cage-free production jumped to 26.2%.
U.K.: The decision to ban battery cages throughout the E.U. was also very much influenced by consumer demand. Free-range eggs made up 30% of sales in the U.K. in 2005, and 50% by 2016. Supermarkets and fast food chains facilitated this transition by stocking and sourcing only cage-free eggs. While this would seem like a great improvement in welfare for egg-laying hens, the growth and subsequent price competition within the free-range market has driven this industry towards intensification and larger-scale production, potentially resulting in lower welfare.
Australia: Free-range eggs make up around 40% of the market in Australia even in the absence of a ban on battery cages. This demand has produced two production systems: small-scale, open pasture farms and large-scale, intensive operations with barns housing tens of thousands of birds. The country’s largest supermarket chains followed the strategies of British supermarkets and implemented cage-free policies, however, in an attempt to balance animal welfare with reasonable prices, they also set their own outdoor stocking density limit to 10,000 birds per hectare.
Labeling And Certification
U.S.: The main certifications in the U.S. are Animal Welfare Approved (AWA), Certified Humane, and American Humane Certified (AHC). The AWA certification has the highest standards but is not commonly used, and AHC with the lowest standards is used by the majority of large-scale producers. In the E.U. and Australia, organic labels are reserved for the highest welfare standards but this is not true of the U.S. market. Although there is little controversy over egg carton labeling, animal rights groups criticize the misleading use of terms like “free-range” and “humane.” For example, the USDA defines free-range as “free and continuous” access to the outdoors for at least 51% of a bird’s life, but the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) has reported that in reality, this often means thousands of birds share only a few exits to small concrete porches without vegetation.
U.K.: A law requiring egg cartons across the E.U. to be labelled ‘caged,’ ‘barn,’ or ‘free-range’ came into effect in 2004. A 2008 regulation specified that hens producing eggs labelled “free-range” must have “continuous daytime access to open-air runs” and stated a limit of 2,500 birds per hectare. However, reports have highlighted overcrowding, lack of actual outdoor access, and other poor conditions, even on RSPCA and CIWF-approved farms.
Australia: A labeling controversy developed in Australia in the late 2000s over the loophole large-scale producers used to justify outdoor stocking densities of up to 30,000 birds per hectare under free-range labels. However, in the early 2010s, the focus for animal rights groups had shifted from the amount of outdoor space per bird, to the question of whether these “free-range” birds were actually able to spend adequate time outside. In 2012, the egg industry tried to set its own free-range stocking limit at 20,000 birds per hectare, but this was ruled as misleading to the consumer. Supermarkets adopted their own compromise of 10,000 birds per hectare and within a few years, this had become the standard for most producers in the country. This demonstrates the power of supermarkets in shaping the standards in their supply chain. In 2015, the government pledged to develop new, more informative labels, however, it ultimately sided with large-scale producers, endorsing the 10,000 birds standard and opting for more vague labeling requirements. This is an ongoing controversy.
Summarizing this comparison between countries, there are both similarities and differences. There is more consumer demand for higher-welfare eggs in the U.K. and Australia. The supermarket model largely drives market segmentation in the U.K. and to an extent in Australia, and both countries have a well-developed market for higher-welfare eggs compared to the U.S.
In the U.K., the government has taken on a proactive role in regulating welfare and labeling standards, facilitating a better transition towards higher welfare. This has resulted in less conflict between the egg industry and other actors, and helped avoid labeling controversies. This stands in contrast to the absence of government legislation in the U.S. and Australia, where private labeling and certification standards have facilitated the growth of the higher-welfare market. This lack of government regulation has resulted in more controversy and loss of public trust, due to its exploitation by large-scale producers.
Federal governments in the U.S. and Australia have shown a continued allegiance with the industry, however, cooperation between the UEP and HSUS shows an acknowledgement from producers that they may no longer be able to rely solely on their cozy relationship with the government. In addition, supermarkets and fast food companies have developed their own free-range policies in response to demand from both consumers and animal advocacy groups, effectively trumping the power of the industry to shape policies. The influence of animal advocacy groups is steadily growing, with the development of their own certification standards and successful campaigns.
An innate controversy exists in the collaboration of animal advocates with the corporations that profit from the confinement and suffering of farmed animals. It’s arguable that the industry’s only motive for collaboration is increased sales and, in effect, support from animal advocates for this type of production. The ultimate goal of most animal advocacy groups is to reduce or eliminate the production and consumption of animal products including eggs, while corporate-driven welfare standards are driven by the industry’s desire to increase these. As the move towards higher welfare is in part driven by consumer demand, a recent Faunalytics study suggested it may be better not to call attention to the role of animal advocates in this type of welfare reform. The study also showed that consumers, in general, react positively to corporate commitments to welfare improvements, though many are critical of the long timelines and doubt that improvements, though incremental, will be realized.
There are valuable lessons to learn from the U.S., U.K. and Australia. Consumer demand is growing for higher-welfare eggs. While some have pointed to the potential of backyard chicken keeping as a higher welfare alternative, the truth is that practice can have just as many welfare issues, and ultimately, intensive and large-scale producers dominate this market in all three countries and around the world. Without strong or mandatory regulations, actual improvements in layer hen housing systems may be limited. Even so, market dynamics and legislative changes hold the potential for improving welfare, and it’s up to animal advocates to learn from each other and harness the current momentum.
The stereotype of the dumb chicken is driven by ignorance but also a motivation to stay ignorant for the sake of continued consumption. The work of advocates includes changing peoples’ perception of farmed animals, and an increasing amount of behavioral research available on chickens can be used to reframe current views of their cognitive, emotional and social abilities.