An Eggcellent Debate: Cage-free eggs might cause more problems than they solve

MARK BONICA [CC BY 2.0] / FLICKR
MARK BONICA [CC BY 2.0] / FLICKR
Consumers must consider food producers when voting to change animal husbandry practices

Eight years ago, California voters were asked to vote in Proposition 2. It asked if consumers would like their egg-laying hens to be able to “stand up, lie down, turn around, and fully extend their wings.” Consumers agreed with the proposition outline and the full effects of the law became apparent by 2015. Since then, various large producers like Foster Farms and Hickson Family Farms have changed to cage-free systems.

Chicken production has frequently been berated with negative images, especially for poultry raised in conventional cages. Pictures of birds missing large chunks of feathers and stuck in small cages have been spread over social media through groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), advocating that no animals should ever be used by humans for consumption or otherwise. Those who see these photos might cast the blame on the cages, but the ragged appearance of the birds cannot be blamed on husbandry alone, but on the animals themselves. Chickens are hierarchical and establish a “pecking order” in their cages, where they fight with other birds to gain dominance. These constant attacks cause the bald spots and injuries the hens suffer in their cages.

Besides the conventional system of raising chickens, there are several different methods of poultry husbandry. The system previously used by such big producers is called conventional cages (CC). Known to be very efficient, CC ensures manure is taken away from the cages and the eggs are removed before they can be exposed to disease from the feces. A second, more expensive method is called enriched cages (EC), in which chickens are housed in larger cages with nesting boxes and scratching area. Cage-free systems allow birds to roam freely in an enclosure where eggs are laid in manure. This was the system elected to be adopted in 2008 and is still used today.

Despite the overwhelming positive response from the public during this election, cage-free systems are not all positive. According to a study by Dr. Frank M. Mitloehner, UC Davis professor of animal science, the new egg-laying system could pose environmental, food safety, worker safety, animal welfare and affordability consequences.

Environmentally speaking, cage-free causes a higher daily concentration of ammonia and an increased concentration of particulate matter in the air than CC and EC methods. While ammonia is a naturally occurring chemical, it can still be detrimental in high concentrations, with the potential to erode the ozone layer that protects humans from harmful UV rays. Cage-free eggs also have higher risk of pathogen ingestion. All hens shed salmonella in manure and when eggs come in contact with the feces, this increases the rates of salmonella and decreases the food’s safety.

Prop 2 also had serious consequences for animal welfare. Hens in these systems have lower weekly egg counts, the highest death rates, cannibalism and high rates of pecking between the birds. When hens lose track of the birds they’ve established dominance over, the chickens constantly fight with one another because of the lack of separated flocks. And with single flocks that can range up to 200,000 chickens, this can cause a lot of damage. Cage-free birds were also seen to have prominent keel bone fractures (the large bone in their chests) due to the chicken’s unsuccessful flight abilities.

Imagine having another person thrown at you — that’s what these birds experience every time they’re landed on. Moreover, workers in these facilities are also exposed to health threats due to the high concentration of inhalable dust, which puts them at greater risk for lung disease.

While conventional cages might provide better food safety and worker safety, they do create a worse environment for the birds. When having to decide between cage-free and CC or EC, there will always be trade-offs. It’s important to be fully educated before voting on a proposition that could make as much of a difference as Prop 2. It’s also important to keep in mind that farmers raising these birds only receive seven cents for every twelve eggs sold, while retailers keep the rest of the average $2.94/dozen. And this cheap price applies only to conventional cage systems. By forcing producers to redesign their entire production systems, we are generating more expenses for them and creating a more expensive product most consumers are still reluctant to buy. Prices for cage-free eggs range from 5 to 9 dollars but few people willingly hash out the extra cash to pay for the eggs.

This is not to say cage-free is a terrible system. Everything has its pros and cons, and consumers must remain vigilant and educate themselves in order to make important decisions about the food they put on their tables. They must consider not only the impact of a law on the general population, but on the people who grow the food as well.

So what has Prop 2 actually done other than increase egg prices, increase health concerns for workers and decrease food safety in eggs? Only the future can tell.

Written by: Alice Rocha — asrocha@ucdavis.edu

Davis wouldn’t be Davis without a strong focus on agriculture. Alice Rocha, a third-year animal science major, will bring that focus to the Aggie with a column on sustainable animal agriculture and how it impacts the food system today. This paper ran a column last year on ethical consumption, which was partly concerned with the potential downsides of our eating habits. Rocha will expand upon those concerns, using her own experience working in a lab to inform her takes on some of the most pressing issues we need to start working through today, including how to feed nine billion people by 2050.