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

| 7/20/2011 4:03:20 PM

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.

Heather Clapp
5/25/2012 7:11:11 PM

Careful everyone. Every time "The Industry" gets on board with adding more environmental regulation to themselves it's because they know that somehow it will hurt the small non-industrial food producer MORE. The food industrialists see the small mutli-functional farm serving local peoples as their most dangerous competitor. The government ALSO see's this as an encroaching threat to their own power. Somewhere in the fine print here there is going to be some required something that is so expensive and unscalable that it will cripple the small farmer thus consolidating the industry further into the hands of agra-business. What is right and good in the world of farming and food is education! An educated consumer choosing more and more to buy humane, local, nutritious eggs create the need for more farms that provide those eggs. That movement is growing and it's working as evidenced by farmer's markets growing at an exponential rate. We shouldn't even ask the government to regulate because every time they do they only create something that to do the right thing in appearance only. Until government is owned again by US and not by industry- all proposed regulations must distrusted no matter how feel good they seem on the surface.

pa matt
8/17/2011 2:07:51 PM

I agree that many people would rather pay a little more for eggs. But that choice is there- even Walmart has cage free eggs available. However, many people buy the cheaper ones. I think that the solution here may not be a federal law, but education of the masses. As people become more aware of the situation, they can choose to buy eggs from more humanely raised chickens, and then the industry model will change in an organic, consumer-driven way. Anytime the federal government passes a law like this, I am wary. What will be the impact of this on us small timers? I’m especially concerned about the euthanasia clause. Will this affect those of us with small flocks? What about chickens raised for meat? I have a couple cones made from gallon water jugs tied to a walnut tree; will pictures of these become grounds for prosecution? Some may think I’m exaggerating, but laws have a way of running away from the intention.

8/5/2011 4:41:26 PM

The purpose of the preamble of the constitution is for, “we the people” to form a more just society. If you finish the quote “we the people” you get “ in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, ... promote the general welfare…” How we treat the animals we use for food and the people who care for them, plays into how just our society is. The HSUS and UEP agreement, if turned into law, would cap ammonia levels in every egg-laying hen farm. Ammonia can seriously harm the humans who work in enclosed areas with it. And yes, people may have to pay a small amount more for eggs. I think if you asked most people if they are willing to pay a small amount more to know the hens their eggs come from, are not cramped (to the point that not all of them can have their claws on the floor at the same time) they will opt for the more humane choice.

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