Cage-free egg production
Trends in animal welfare of laying hens
Animal welfare is an important attribute within the concept of food quality and consumers expect animal-related products, especially food, to be produced with respect for the health and comfort of the animals.
Recent surveys carried out by the European Commission, as well as studies within the Welfare QualityÂ®2 project, confirm that animal welfare is an issue of considerable importance to European consumers and their citizens show a strong commitment to the subject. In order to respond to society’s concern about the quality of food products of animal origin and to market demands there is an urgent need for reliable science-based systems to assess the welfare status of animals.
In January 2006 the European Commission adopted a Community Action Plan on the Protection and Welfare of Animals. The Action Plan outlines the Commissionâ€™s planned initiatives and measures to improve the protection and welfare of animals for the period 2006-2010. The Action Plan aims to ensure that animal welfare is addressed in the most effective manner possible, in all EU sectors and through EU relations with Third Countries.
Among other things the Action Plan foresees a classification system for animal welfare practices, to differentiate between cases where minimum standards are applied and cases where even higher standards are used. It also provides for the establishment of standardized indicators that allow production systems and the application of standards to be properly recognized. The option of an EU label for animal welfare is also considered, in order to promote products obtained in accordance with certain standards.
Animal welfare in laying hens
Animal welfare in commercial poultry production is a topic that is taking on increasing importance internationally. In some countries this interest is only there because there is an opportunity for egg trade. At the same time, as requirements increase, there is a possible threat to the market position of eggs that are not produced under animal welfare standards or without the guarantee that they were produced under these standards.
The welfare status of an animal can vary from very satisfactory to very unsatisfactory. However, sometimes one component of welfare is satisfactory while others are not. For example, an animal may be in good health, but have limited freedom of movement due to the use of cages as in the case of laying hens. It is therefore important to be able to measure each component of welfare in order to reach an overall conclusion.
In conventional battery cage systems, hens are unable to express basic natural behaviors such as walking, wing stretching, nesting, perching, dipping and exploring. Because of this physical restriction, scientific evidence shows that hens suffer from abnormalities in their musculoskeletal system due to lack of exercise, and frustration at not being able to perform behaviors that are highly motivated by their own biology.
It is important to note that enriched cages were developed as an attempt to allow the expression of a wider range of bird behaviours by keeping them in cages. However, although this type of housing offers the hens a greater opportunity to express certain behaviors by including perches, substrate areas and nests, the reality is that the implementation of certain additions to enrich the environment is not sufficient due to the number of hens in relation to the necessary number of perches, nests, scratch pads, among others.
Types of cage-free eggs
The types of eggs that we can find in the free-range cage poultry market are
- Cage-free, on the floor: The hens are inside the floor, with free movement. They can roam in a building, room or open area, usually in a barn or on a poultry farm. They have unlimited access to fresh food and water, while others can also forage for food if they are allowed outdoors.
- Free range eggs: The term “free range egg” is rarely used in poultry farming. Free-range eggs are produced on farms that have henhouses and also have access to outdoor parks during the day covered with vegetation, with a minimum area of 4 mÂ˛ per bird.
- Organic eggs: They are free of cage, antibiotics, transgenics, agrochemicals and steroids. Organic eggs, in turn, are characterized by the feeding of the birds, which is done exclusively with ingredients of organic origin. In several countries there is the seal that confers the quality of Organic to these eggs; a label that gives consumers the certainty of being buying an organic product.
In 2019, in the United States, cage-free egg production already covered 17% of total egg production, a significant increase compared to what it represented in 2014 with only 5%.
There is no doubt that this increase is largely due to recent commitments by self-service stores, restaurant chains, hotel groups and other large food companies to use only eggs from cage-free hens.
However, it should be noted that these trends do not imply an end to the intensive and highly technical production to which we are accustomed. Change may include the implementation of systems with the same level of technification and the ability to accommodate high densities of birds without the need to keep them in cages during their productive life.
Thanks to the joint effort of the scientific community and companies that manufacture poultry equipment and facilities, several designs of cage-free houses are available that allow a technified mechanized and state-of-the-art management of the hens and eggs.
- Galindo Maldonado Francisco (2004) EtologĂa aplicada. FMVZ, UNAM. MĂ©xico.
- Normas HFAC para gallinas ponedoras de huevo (2018) PO Box 82, Middleburg.