Is Cage-Free Egg Sourcing More Ethical? Report Details Troubling Findings from Cage-Free Hen Housing Systems

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A large number of major grocery stores, restaurants and food companies have committed to sourcing only cage-free eggs within the next decade — a promise driven largely by consumer demand to buy more ethical or sustainable products. But results of a recent study evaluating three different hen housing systems, including cage-free aviary systems, question how ethical cage-free egg production is.

The report put out by the Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply details many problems found in cage-free aviary hen housing systems, including a higher hen mortality rate, more bone fractures among the hens and more bacteria being present on housing surfaces when compared with other housing systems. The hen mortality rate in cage-free environments was approximately double that of hens living in conventional cages and enriched colony housing, where hens are given a slightly larger space than regular cages.

Cage-free environments also had the most number of hens that died being caught in housing structure, or from being excessively pecked, cannibalized or emaciated. Another troubling finding was that cage-free housing systems had the largest number of birds that were too rotten to conduct an autopsy on.

“This finding most likely reflects the difficulty that workers have finding dead birds within the more complex structure of the AV (cage-free aviary system),” the report said. “Missed and rotten mortality could contribute to the incidence and spread of disease under some conditions.”

Work Conditions Worse

Work conditions were also rough for those working in cage-free hen environments. Workers in this housing systems were exposed to “significantly higher concentrations of airborne particles and endotoxin (toxic components of bacteria)” than those working in other hen housing systems, the report said. Workers also had short-term respiratory health problems, including lower lung function than workers in conventional cage and enriched colony housing systems.

Gathering eggs in cage-free environments was specifically more difficult for workers, according to the report, as workers in cage-free housing had to crawl or lie on the floor to fetch eggs. This meant workers had to “adopt extreme body positions” for lengthy periods of time, exposing themselves to respiratory and ergonomic hazards, the report stated.

Bacteria Levels Higher

The amount of bacteria on cage-free housing floors was significantly higher as well when compared to other hen housing systems. Cage-free housing floors had the highest levels of aerobes and coliforms and 69% of drag swabs taken from cage-free housing environments tested positive for salmonella. Dust levels were eight to 10 times higher in cage-free housing environments than the other two housing types studied. Particulate matter emissions were six to seven times higher than other systems as well.

Additional findings from the report included a higher number of keel fractures and other bone problems such as rib remodeling among cage-free hens as well as dirtier feathers than hens in other housing systems. Manure on the floor is also a problem. While 77% of manure was deposited on belts within cage-free environments, the rest of ended up on the floor where hens could freely roam. The cost of a cage-free housing system is also the highest among the environments studied.

Demand for Cage-Free Continues

The Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply, which released the report, is a group of animal welfare scientists, academic institutions, non-government organizations, egg suppliers, restaurant/foodservice and food retail companies. However, as The New York Times pointed out, the group is backed in part by egg producers who “have little incentive to change their ways.”

Despite the CSES report’s findings of problems with cage-free eggs, the trend for food companies and retailers to go cage free is continuing. Publix is the latest major U.S. grocery store chain to announce it would source 100% cage-free eggs by 2026. Other major retailers, including Wal-Mart and Kroger, announced earlier this year their switch to cage-free eggs in the next decade. The New York Times article pointed out 175 major retailer and restuarants in all have committed to cage-free eggs.

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