Egg-Laying Hens Should Get Better Cages, Humane Society and Egg Industry Agree

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Commercial Egg-Laying HensThe Humane Society of the United States and the United Egg Producers took a small step toward better conditions for chickens in the egg industry. On July 7, the two organizations agreed to work together to pass federal legislation for the 280 million egg-laying hens in the U.S.

The HSUS is the country’s largest animal protection organization, and the UEP represents the farmers who own more than 80 percent of the nation’s egg-laying hens. The two groups rarely see eye to eye. So not only is this a historic agreement between established political opponents, the legislation they propose would be the first federal law protecting an animal from abuse on factory farms.

Current Cage Standard for Egg-Laying HensAccording to the HSUS’s press release, at least 92 percent of egg-laying hens in the U.S. are confined in “battery cages” so small the chickens can’t spread their wings. Of the country’s 280 million egg-laying hens, three in four are given about as much space as two-thirds a sheet of paper, while 50 million hens are provided with just 48 square inches, about half a sheet of paper per bird.

These cramped cages are also bare—they don’t provide hens with tools needed for natural behaviors, like laying their eggs in nests, perching or scratching. All they can do is eat, sleep, poop and lay eggs. And this only scratches the surface of the animal welfare problems in the egg industry, as the HSUS’s CEO and president, Wayne Pacelle, wrote in his blog.

Space Given Each Egg-Laying HenIf this legislation passes, battery cages would be phased out and replaced with “enriched colony cages.” According to the UEP’s press release, these new cages would give each hen a minimum of 124 square inches, or about one square foot, as well as nesting boxes, perches and scratching areas. The photo at left shows the space the average industrial egg-laying hen is given (orange square) compared with the proposed amount on which each chicken would live her entire life (red square).

The law would also prohibit withholding feed or water for up to two weeks from the hens in order to induce molting and increase productivity. The proposed legislation would implement euthanasia standards for hens and prohibit excessive ammonia levels, a common problem in henhouses that’s harmful to both the hens and the egg industry workers.

The last requirement would labels on all egg cartons that identify the method used to produce the eggs, such as “eggs from caged hens,” eggs from cage-free hens” or “eggs from free-range hens.” The new labeling system would let people recognize and choose eggs produced with higher animal welfare standards, the HSUS said.

New Cage Standard for Egg-Laying HensAll eggs and eggs products that don’t meet these requirements would be illegal. Some regulations would be implemented almost immediately after the law’s enactment, such as the molting, ammonia and euthanasia standards, according to Pacelle’s blog post about the agreement. Other changes, like labeling and the requirement that each bird has at least 67 square inches of space, would take a few more years, while the switch from “battery cages” to “enriched colony cages” would take 15 to 18 years.

These may seem like small steps—indeed, the HSUS has been criticized for backing down from its original, much tougher stance—but chickens have never been protected under federal law. Regulations passed more than 30 years ago that don’t specify factory farms protect some other farm animals. Because the legislation would be the first to monitor the treatment of animals in factory farms, animal rights advocates hope the laws will move Congress to enact similar ones for other livestock, such as cows, pigs, sheep, goats, horses and chickens raised for meat.

Write to members of Congress in support of this legislation.

Although “enriched colony cages” are an improvement over “barren battery cages,” the HSUS said, it will continue to advocate switching to “cage-free” eggs because furnished cages still severely restrict movement and limit the chickens’ behavior.

When buying eggs at the store, “cage-free” eggs may be hard to find, and in general, egg-carton labels can be confusing and misleading. You can read the HSUS’s guide to egg-carton labels and how they relate to the chickens’ welfare, and learn about the difference between free-range and pastured eggs in a short article by MOTHER EARTH NEWS Editor-in-Chief, Cheryl Long.

In 2007, MOTHER EARTH NEWS had pastured eggs from 14 flocks around the country tested at an accredited laboratory and compared them with official egg nutrient data from the USDA for “conventional” eggs. The results showed that pastured eggs are much healthier than eggs from industrial factory farms, because a chicken’s natural diet and behavior benefits the nutrient content of her eggs.

Pastured eggs don’t come from immobilized chickens that never see sunlight or a patch of grass. And because crowded, unsanitary warehouse conditions lead to the spread of diseases like salmonella, eating pastured eggs reduces your risk of illness. To find pastured egg farmers near you, check out Eat Wild or LocalHarvest.

Photo of the Week: A Hen and Her FriendAnother way you can make sure your eggs are coming from pastured hens is by raising chickens yourself. Not only will they supply you with healthier eggs, the chickens will provide pest control for your garden.

If you’re not sure where to start or you want to learn more about different breeds, check out our 2010 survey results that show which chicken breeds are best for desired qualities, such as tastiest meat, quickest eggs and best temperament.

Then you can do a quick search for specific chicken breeds in the catalogs of almost 70 mail-order hatcheries, or find the hatchery and poultry breeder nearest you in MOTHER EARTH NEWS’ directory.

To house and protect your hens, you can build this portable chicken mini-coop, designed and used by Editor-in-Chief Cheryl Long. For more resources and information, check out MOTHER EARTH NEWS’ Chicken and Egg Page.

First, second and fourth photos are from The Humane Society of the United States; third photo by Alli Langley; last photo submitted by CU user JKenney.