The Poultry Bulletin - - FRONT PAGE -

This two part se­ries, by Michael Brad­ford of De Heus with ad­di­tional re­search by G Brad­ford, out­lines what has taken place in the cage-free en­vi­ron­ment around the world dur­ing the last few years. In the sec­ond ar­ti­cle, op­tions avail­able to South African pro­duc­ers will be dis­cussed.

Part 1: Paint­ing the picture

Mc­don­ald’s Septem­ber 2015 decision to tran­si­tion to eggs reared in cage-free fa­cil­i­ties is viewed by many in­dus­try com­men­ta­tors as a defin­ing mo­ment for the global egg in­dus­try. The com­pany, which serves two bil­lion eggs per year in the US alone, an­nounced its com­mit­ment to cease us­ing eggs from hens housed in con­ven­tional cages by 2025. Fol­low­ing the an­nounce­ment, a cas­cade of food in­dus­try cor­po­ra­tions pledged to fol­low suit. In early 2016, the num­ber of com­pa­nies promis­ing to source cage-free eggs in­creased

ex­po­nen­tially. By April, close to 50 gro­cery chains and a fur­ther 40 restau­rant chains had promised changes to their buy­ing poli­cies and, in May alone, a fur­ther 30 US com­pa­nies moved to align their com­pa­nies with in­dus­try sen­ti­ment, along with food ser­vice and cruise com­pa­nies (Wattag­net).

Sysco Corps, the world’s largest food­ser­vice dis­trib­u­tor, has com­mit­ted to sourc­ing only cage-free eggs across its en­tire US sup­ply chain by 2026. With sales of $48.7 bil­lion in 2015, the com­pany is big­ger than Mc­don­alds and adds con­sid­er­able weight to the move­ment away from bat­tery farm­ing (ecow­atch. com). Walt Dis­ney pledged to use only cage-free eggs in its parks and on its cruise ships by the end of 2016, push­ing other cor­po­ra­tions to fast­track their own tran­si­tions. For those seek­ing lo­cal rel­e­vance, multi­na­tional re­tail cor­po­ra­tion Wal­mart (Makro/game/jumbo Cash & Carry) an­nounced in April that it would make the tran­si­tion in its US op­er­a­tions by 2025, whilst Nestlé has now promised to com­pletely over­haul their US egg sup­ply chain within the next five years. Kel­logg’s and Unilever have also signed pledges.

Ass­esing wel­fare is­sues

Farm an­i­mal wel­fare is an emo­tive is­sue but there are proven means of as­sess­ing wel­fare is­sues sen­si­bly. Much progress has been made since the 1960’s (when op­po­si­tion to in­ten­sive farm­ing meth­ods was first raised) in de­vel­op­ing ob­jec­tive, sci­en­tific means of as­sess­ing wel­fare in birds. A hen’s wel­fare might be de­scribed in terms of the fol­low­ing fac­tors: be­hav­iour, dis­ease, stress, foot and skele­tal health, par­a­sitic/pest load, nu­tri­tion and af­fec­tive states (such as fear, pain, frus­tra­tion) (Lay et al., 2011). An­i­mal rights pro­test­ers have fo­cused strongly on nat­u­ral be­hav­iours, af­fec­tive states and skele­tal is­sues and con­tinue to be very vo­cal in their op­po­si­tion to large-scale farm­ing prac­tices; some­times ig­nor­ing ob­jec­tive wel­fare sci­ence. Pro­duc­ers should, how­ever, not de­lude them­selves - con­ven­tional cages are dif­fi­cult to jus­tify on any grounds other than cost-ef­fec­tive­ness and dis­ease con­trol.

Lim­it­ing be­hav­iour

Peer-re­viewed sci­en­tific re­search has demon­strated that con­ven­tional cage sys­tems deny birds the op­por­tu­nity to ex­hibit a num­ber of key be­hav­iours which are fun­da­men­tal to their wel­fare, re­sult­ing in in­creased levels of frus­tra­tion, pain and stress. These im­por­tant be­hav­iours in­clude the op­por­tu­nity to build a nest, preen, stretch and flap their wings, perch and dust-bathe. Chick­ens ex­pe­ri­enc­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal con­di­tions that deny them im­por­tant in­her­ent be­hav­iours at­tempt to find ways to cope in these en­vi­ron­ments. Their be­hav­iour then takes on ab­nor­mal pat­terns, be­com­ing di­rected to­wards self or against cage mates and in­clud­ing such prob­lems as feather peck­ing, can­ni­bal­ism or other stereo­typic be­hav­iours.

The EU has of­fi­cially recog­nised since 1999 that the pre­ven­tion of sev­eral nat­u­ral be­hav­iours in lay­ing hens is a se­ri­ous wel­fare is­sue and banned the use of bat­tery cages from 2012. Thus, it took half a cen­tury be­tween recog­ni­tion of the prob­lem (Bram­bell Re­port, 1965) and the leg­isla­tive re­sponse. A huge vol­ume of ob­jec­tive sci­en­tific re­search into hen wel­fare was con­ducted in the in­terim and con­tin­ues to­day.

Cage prob­lems

Be­sides be­havioural is­sues, con­ven­tional cages can cause higher levels of hy­per­k­er­ato­sis in the bird’s feet and, where man­age­ment is poor and cage doors small, higher levels of new bone breaks dur­ing de­pop­u­la­tion; ex­ac­er­bated by brit­tle bones re­sult­ing from lack of ex­er­cise and ab­sence of perch­ing be­hav­iour (os­teo­poro­sis). In­fes­ta­tions with cer­tain mites and lice may oc­cur be­cause of the hous­ing of large num­bers of birds in close prox­im­ity and space lim­i­ta­tions pre­vent the birds from us­ing nor­mal groom­ing pro­ce­dures to con­trol these in­fes­ta­tions.


Of course, there are some ad­van­tages to con­ven­tional sys­tems, even for the birds. Birds are re­moved from their fae­ces and soil and are thus pro­tected from a num­ber of dis­ease, par­a­site and pest chal­lenges. Mor­tal­ity in con­ven­tional cages is less than in barn and free-range sys­tems (but still higher than in en­riched cage sys­tems). There is also less dust and thus lower res­pi­ra­tory prob­lems in con­ven­tional cages than in aviary and barn sys­tems, and air-borne bac­te­rial in­fec­tion

rates are lower. It is easy to sup­ply cage-housed hens with high qual­ity nu­tri­tion and clean wa­ter.

En­riched cages

En­riched (fur­nished) or colony caged sys­tems, now used ex­ten­sively in the EU, allow birds to ex­hibit a wider range of their nat­u­ral be­hav­iours. These sys­tems allow the bird ad­di­tional space, an op­por­tu­nity to perch, a nest and a lit­ter bathing area. There re­main lim­i­ta­tions in terms of space to flap wings and to walk or run around, but the ben­e­fits of con­ven­tional cages in terms of dis­ease and dust con­trol and high stock­ing den­si­ties are re­tained. Perches con­fer ben­e­fits in terms of bone strength, pro­vid­ing they are po­si­tioned in a way which avoids land­ing fail­ures. Noncage fa­cil­i­ties, such as aviary sys­tems, barns or free-range sys­tems, of­fer more com­plex en­vi­ron­ments to the birds and allow them to ex­press a fuller range of in­her­ent be­hav­iours and to make so­cial and ther­mal choices. These in­creased free­doms can, un­der poorer man­age­ment con­di­tions, be ac­com­pa­nied by wel­fare is­sues, such as feather peck­ing, can­ni­bal­ism, pre­da­tion, poor air qual­ity, bac­te­rial dis­eases, par­a­site and pest in­fes­ta­tions, more se­ri­ous foot prob­lems and the need for beak trim­ming.

Cost vs wel­fare

There has been a ten­dency amongst pro­duc­ers to ar­gue that cost-ef­fec­tive­ness and dis­ease con­trol make caged sys­tems the only vi­able pro­duc­tion sys­tem in a hun­gry world but this ar­gu­ment ig­nores half a cen­tury of thor­ough re­search into lay­ing hen wel­fare and thus plays into the hands of the an­i­mal right ac­tivists. Al­ter­na­tive sys­tems, poorly man­aged, may have higher mor­tal­i­ties, can­ni­bal­ism, feather peck­ing, floor eggs, dust prob­lems, etc. but it is al­most al­ways pos­si­ble to al­le­vi­ate these prob­lems through im­proved man­age­ment or breed­ing, and clever im­ple­men­ta­tion of the thou­sands of sci­en­tific find­ings avail­able in the lit­er­a­ture. With con­ven­tional cages, it is clear that no amount of im­proved man­age­ment can com­pen­sate for the wel­fare is­sues in­her­ent in the sys­tem. Sci­en­tif­i­cally, pro­duc­ers are on shaky ground if we try to de­fend our pro­duc­tion sys­tem as hu­mane.

The need for change

The egg in­dus­try boasts one of the world’s most com­plete and eas­ily mar­ketable prod­ucts. It is healthy, nat­u­ral, nu­tri­tious and ver­sa­tile. It can be eaten as is, or in­cluded in any num­ber of value-added prod­ucts. It is an in­ter­na­tion­ally ac­cepted prod­uct and is utilised by all age groups, gen­ders, re­li­gions and cul­tures. As an in­dus­try, we should have no prob­lem sell­ing un­lim­ited quan­ti­ties of this in­cred­i­ble of­fer­ing and yet per capita egg con­sump­tion in South Africa is per­haps half of what it might be. Many other coun­tries around the world also have the scope to in­crease their con­sump­tion of eggs to the levels seen in Ja­pan, China and Mex­ico. In the last few years, the choles­terol con­cerns which have dogged egg sales and con­sump­tion for decades have been dis­pelled by sci­en­tific re­search. So what might stand in the way of egg sales rock­et­ing in South Africa and around the world? Sim­ple - wel­fare is­sues.

The egg in­dus­try’s whole­some im­age, and our op­por­tu­ni­ties for ad­ver­tis­ing and pro­mo­tion, is ad­versely af­fected by four tick­ing time­bombs – caged pro­duc­tion, the dis­posal of male chicks, beak trim­ming and the treat­ment of spent hens. All of these con­cerns are be­ing ad­dressed by pro­duc­ers and gov­ern­ments in the EU and the US at the mo­ment. Hen wel­fare is rapidly be­com­ing a “hori­zon is­sue” for South African pro­duc­ers - an is­sue which could have pro­found con­se­quences for pro­duc­ers if we do not recog­nise it, eval­u­ate it and re­spond to it, ef­fec­tively, in time. The speed with which ma­jor US and UK cor­po­ra­tions have an­nounced their com­mit­ment to cage-free pro­duc­tion has demon­strated how quickly a shift can be im­posed on an in­dus­try that has not paid enough at­ten­tion to the ex­ter­nal land­scape. A sam­ple of US egg pro­duc­ers (hous­ing over 125 mil­lion hens) changed their fore­cast of what pro­por­tion of hens would be in non-caged sys­tems in 2025 from 13.7 %, when asked in 2014, to 40.6 %, when asked the same ques­tion in 2015; such is the speed with which the in­dus­try is be­ing forced to change (Top Egg Com­pa­nies Sur­vey, Wattag­net).

The cage-free rev­o­lu­tion is mov­ing rapidly through the world and the South African egg in­dus­try should make sure that they are pre­pared to ac­com­mo­date the change.¡

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