Eggs produced in a study led by researchers at UC Davis and Michigan State University will supply McDonald’s U.S.A. by 2011.
The commercial-scale study will include tens of thousands of hens to examine the sustainability impacts of various housing alternatives for egg-laying hens in the U.S. These impacts include animal welfare, environmental, food safety and economic factors.
“This study will involve collecting scientific data from different laying hen production systems (conventional cages; enriched environments containing nest boxes, perches and a dust-bathing/scratching area; and non-cage systems),” said Professor Joy Mench, director of the UC Davis center for animal welfare, in an e-mail interview.
Commercial-scale facilities will be constructed with these different housing systems and the data collected will provide information to major retailers to help them make decisions about what types of eggs to purchase in the future.
“This is a welcome initiative for egg purchasers like McDonald’s who want to consider all of the sustainability impacts when it comes to buying eggs,” said Dan Gorsky, McDonald’s senior vice president, North America Supply Chain Management, in a press release. “It is our intention for eggs produced as part of this study, including cage free eggs, to partially supply McDonald’s U.S.A. by 2011.“
McDonald’s, the American Humane Association, American Veterinary Medical Association, USDA’s Agriculture Research Service, Cargill Inc. and the Center for Food Integrity will also advise the study.
“There’s a very compelling need for a study of this scope,“ said Marie Wheatley, president and CEO of the American Humane Association, in a press release. “While scientists indicate there are benefits for laying hen birds to be able to demonstrate more natural behaviors associated with a cage-free environment, there are open questions on other animal welfare matters such as feather pecking and mortality rates.“
The study lies on the heels of Proposition 2, a law passed November 2008 in California that will take effect January 2015. It requires that hens used for commercial egg production must be given enough space to lie down, stand up and fully extend their limbs.
“The major impact of this proposition will be on laying hens and laying hen producers,” Mench wrote in a release about Prop 2. “The California egg industry produces almost 5 billion eggs per year from almost 20 million laying hens. About 95 percent of these hens are housed in conventional cages, and 5 percent are housed in non-cage (cage free) systems, including the hens that produce organic eggs.“
But there are advantages and disadvantages to each system – issues the study will work to assess and solve according to Dr. Janice Swanson, Michigan State University, in an e-mail interview.
“No use having a system that perfectly accommodates animal welfare but produces a significant negative impact to the environment – that would not be sustainable,” Swanson said.
“Instead, let’s evaluate then choose or develop systems that not only accommodate the behavior of the hen but maintains her in good health, is environmentally responsible, produce a healthy egg product that can be transferred through the supply chain with integrity, is affordable and allows the farmer to stay in business,” he said.
While the specific timetable and cost of the effort has not yet been determined, and participating experts are still working toward standards for the various housing types, researchers are confident the work will lead to information hopeful for the future of sustainable farm systems.
“Very few studies have taken a fully integrated approach to considering the other aspects of the system and at a commercial scale of production,” Swanson said. “We are working to advance our scientific understanding of how changes impact the hen and the different features of a system, how we can improve current systems, and to look ahead at forming the foundation for the next generation of sustainable farm systems.“
DAVID LAVINE can be reached at email@example.com.