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Caged or Cage-Free? Debate Continues on Safest Method to House Laying Hens

This article was originally published on July 31 by The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting as part of a series titled “Cracks in the System.”

John Miller walks across the lime-covered floor of his chicken barn and steps out a small door into an open field in rural Campbell Hill, IL.

The fenced-in space is about an acre with a small creek and tree line on the other side of the chicken wire. Dozens of his 500 Hy-Line brown laying hens follow him. The temperature is in the low 40s and the wind is gusty, but the hens do not seem to mind.

Miller’s farm just southeast of St. Louis is host to vegetable and strawberry fields and has ample parking set aside for visitors. Miller designed the barn so the chickens could get fresh air and that he would not be embarrassed if people came by to see where their eggs came from.

Two hundred miles north of Miller’s farm, Chet Utterback stands at the end of a row of cages in a windowless, concrete-floored building.

The University of Illinois’ laying barn is home to about 3,000 chickens housed in wire cages. Hens share cages and are allotted 78.8 square inches of space. Each row has three levels of cages with conveyor belts running in front of the pens for food and underneath to collect manure. The bottoms of the pens are slightly angled so that eggs roll out the front of the pens into a collection tray.

The building is one of two that house chickens. Set behind a chain-link fence, both buildings are part of a small, eight-acre complex at the university poultry farm outside of Urbana, IL. Visitors are greeted with signs warning about trespassing and bio-security threats.

One man produces eggs in a free-range and cage-free environment. The other uses a traditional enclosed, caged system. Both men are proud of their operations and believe the egg production practices they use are the best.

There is an ongoing national debate as to which production method is better. Hen housing is the primary focus of proposed federal legislation that would replace current, state-level guidelines for housing and production practices.

Utterback, manager of the University of Illinois poultry farm, thinks cage-free housing could increase the risk of Salmonella Enteritidis.

“With the law that the Humane Society of the United States and United Egg Producers are pushing, for colony enriched housing like they have in Europe, those types of systems cannot be cleaned and can’t be maintained as clean as a conventional cage system,” he said.

Salmonella E. can be transmitted several ways, including through manure. Utterback worries that chickens not housed in conventional cages will scratch through manure and then become infected with Salmonella E.

“People tend to forget the reason we put chickens in cages in the 1950s was not only for the chicken’s welfare but from a human health standpoint,” Utterback says.

But Miller says his cage-free operation is Salmonella-free. As part of a pending contract to supply eggs to Whole Foods in St. Louis, Miller recently conducted voluntary Salmonella E. testing of his free-range, cage-free facility.

“I had to send in five swabs from the barn. I tried to get places like the perch and areas where the birds spend a lot of time,” Miller said. “The test results came back. There was an absence of Salmonella E., so that’s good.”

Miller thinks his eggs are just as safe as any other egg sold today. To him, housing systems are more of an animal-welfare issue.

The Egg Bill

The Egg Bill now in Congress is backed by an odd couple of interests – the Humane Society of the United States and United Egg Producers, the national trade association for the industry.

The egg producers were forced into an alliance with the Humane Society after the latter obtained passage of a series of state laws with strict hen-housing requirements.

The heart of the bill requires transitioning from conventional caged systems to what is called “colony enriched housing.”

“In 2008, the Humane Society of the U.S. got Proposition Two passed in California,” said Chad Gregory, president of United Egg Producers. “Prop Two said that animals should be able to stand up and spread their limbs without touching anything. There are serious implications to the egg industry. If one state has to abide by this and states across the border don’t, producers could move there.”

Enriched colony housing systems provide about twice the space of conventional housing systems. Hens would have a 4-by-12-foot space that offers scratch areas, perches and a nest box. Traditional cages are wire pens with no enrichments. Current guidelines require 72 square inches of space per bird.

“If we can’t pass this bill this year, by January 2015, the California egg industry is out of business,” said Gregory. “If we can’t pass this federal bill, Ohio, the second-largest producing state, and Michigan are out of business by 2020. We want this to pass so we have a future.”

He said the Egg Bill would level the playing field between producers in different states.

“We worked a deal, a partnership, with the Humane Society to stop pushing for state laws. In exchange, we will support going from conventional cages to enriched colony cages within 15 years,” Gregory said.

The 15-year deadline is a negotiated timeline. “We wanted 30 years and they [Humane Society] wanted five. In theory, we settled between the two,” he said.

Utterback repeatedly said that consumers do not understand the ways their food is produced.

“In California, they have ridiculous animal-welfare laws,” he said. “I have worked with poultry for 35 years, and I have never seen a chicken walk around with its wings out, fully extended. You have people passing laws that have no idea what they are doing or the effects of these laws.”

Fighting the compromise

Not all egg producers are backing the compromise.

Egg farmer and pork producer Amon Baer of Minnesota said he decided to set up his own Washington lobbying group to fight the Egg Bill.

Baer hired a D.C. lobbying firm to represent Egg Farmers of America. The firm also represents the National Pork Producers Council, the International Dairy Foods Association, Hormel and many other large agribusiness interests.

Egg Farmers of America issued a statement in February 2013 saying it feels there are both animal and human health concerns associated with enriched colony housing.

One of the group’s press releases cited a report that stated: “Hens in enriched colonies experienced increased leg and wing fractures.” The release also cited a study that indicated Salmonella E. was transmitted at a higher rate in hens not housed in conventional cage systems.

“I read an article that said Americans want a 100-percent full-proof, safe food supply and that is the most ludicrous thing I have ever heard of. There is no such thing,” Utterback said.

However, he acknowledged, “It all boils down to good management practices in any type of housing system.”

The costs of change

Utterback also mentioned his concern about the costs incurred by producers to adopt new housing systems. He worries this would make eggs too expensive for consumers.

But Gregory of United Egg Producers thinks the costs will be manageable.

“The cost to producers would be for the equipment,” he said. “There are 285 million laying hens in the U.S. and 96 percent are in conventional cages. Producers would already be spending around $6 billion in 15 years to maintain the conventional equipment.”

The total cost to the egg industry for the enriched colony housing would be an additional $4 billion. Gregory said if the bill is passed, consumers could expect to pay about 10 cents more per dozen eggs.

But Egg Farmers of America does not agree with that projection. The group cites an economic impact study conducted by the United Soybean Board that indicates a 25-percent increase in consumer cost.

Another aspect of the Egg Bill would be to establish guidelines on induced molting of hens. Hens stop producing eggs and their ovaries “rest” and reset during a molt. Allowing a hen to molt will extend her egg-producing years. The average hen will go through at least one, and probably two, molts while in production.

Producers now use “feed-through” programs designed to reduce stress on the hen and thus reduce colonization of Salmonella E. in the bird. Regulating light exposure is still used. For example, both Utterback and Miller have timers in place to regulate the number of hours of light in their laying barns.

The Egg Bill would ensure the use of molting methods approved by animal-welfare groups such as the Humane Society.

Two approaches to egg production

Animal-welfare issues and views on consumer choice divide producers.

“The birds get more exercise and the air quality is better,” said Miller. “Customers want specialty eggs. I can’t compete with a guy who has 10,000 chickens, and that’s fine. I am here for the people who want a direct connection with where their eggs come from.”

Miller is a new producer. His custom-designed barn was constructed in 2012 for about $25,000. He kept costs down by doing most of the construction with his oldest son.

The barn has several special features to keep the chickens comfortable year-round. The barn is covered with thick, white plastic. Each side can roll up several feet to allow in fresh air. The sides have an inner wire wall to keep chickens in when the sides are up.

The thermostat is set to control the air temperature in the barn. Cooling fans and the adjustable sides automatically engage as the temperature changes.

Miller’s hens started laying at the end of September 2012. He gets more than 450 eggs a day from his cage-free, free-range flock.  He is considering trying to become certified organic, but acknowledged it is a long process.

His hens lay eggs in individual nests that have a plastic flap in front for privacy. Eggs roll out the back into a collection tray. There are perches in front of the nests, covered with chicken manure. This is one of the areas Miller said he made sure to swab as part of his Salmonella testing.

Miller said that his chickens do run for cover when a large bird flies over. His hens usually hide in the barn or another small shed inside the fenced area when this happens.

Using a homemade light box constructed of plywood, Miller candles all eggs as required by law before packaging them. His egg wash and packaging station is set up in his garage between the family’s deep freeze and carriage.

Eggs are stored across the road in a stand-alone refrigeration unit set between his strawberry patch and a field where vegetables grow in the summer. A small building sits next to the cooling unit. Miller uses the building for administrative work when visitors come to the farm to pick berries or buy vegetables.

“I can’t commercially supply eggs to feed the world. Prices would be too high” he said. “But there is a market for this type of egg. I think there is a place for everybody [producers].”

Miller was also open to showing any part of his operation to visitors. He had no concerns about photos being taken anywhere in his barn or of any of his birds. “I have nothing to hide,” he said.

Utterback, however, was quite concerned about photos taken in his University of Illinois facility. He said photos can be taken out of context and, if people don’t understand the industry, they might interpret something as mistreatment.

“The only reason you were allowed in here is because I am a part of a public teaching institution. You would not have been allowed on another farm because of bio-security,” Utterback said.

He later added, “I hate sneaky people. Unscrupulous animal-rights people challenging the food industry have made it hard to trust people and tougher on people to get access to places like this.”

Birds at both farms were missing feathers. Miller and Utterback agreed that is just part of having chickens housed together in any system.

The University of Illinois facility was completed in 2007 with a $3.2-million price tag. In addition to the breeding and laying hens, the farm has a small flock set aside for ovarian cancer research.

Visitors allowed access to the laying barns must cover their shoes with booties so as not to track in foreign substances. If a person had been in contact with other poultry prior to visiting, they would be required to put on a full protective suit.

The primary laying barn has a small area for administrative work and supply storage. Off that room there is a large cooler where eggs are stored. In the cooler, there were several pallets of cased eggs sorted by destination.

Some of the eggs will be sold direct to consumers as part of the University of Illinois fresh egg sells program. Eggs that had been cracked or that did not meet standards would be shipped to a processing plant. “Breaker” plants take shell eggs, break them and then convert them into a processed or pasteurized egg product.

The clucking of 3,000 hens is overwhelming when you enter the room of cages. The area is clean and the floors clear, but there is still a very distinct odor in the air.

A student worker walks through the aisles gathering the eggs out of the collection trays. The poultry farm employees around 10 student workers and two full-time employees.

Utterback demonstrates how food is distributed on the conveyor belt in front of the cages. Hens group to the front of the cage when they hear the belt turned on. Water dispensers run along the back side of each cage.

“A chicken’s brain is the size of its eyeball,” Utterback said. “That isn’t too big. They don’t care they are in cages. They actually feel safer in here. They don’t have to worry about being attacked.”

“A great deal of egg farmers left in the U.S. produce under a variety of systems; it is all about consumer choices,” Gregory said. “Most producers don’t think negatively about any system because they market eggs from all of them.”

Paul Patterson, professor of poultry science at Pennsylvania State University, said there is conflicting data about the safety of colony enriched housing and free-range systems.

“It is a wash,” said Patterson. “It [non-conventional systems] gives the hens more space, but it increases fecal exposure, which cages would keep them out of.”

More production differences

“A lot of times people think big is bad. In this case, it isn’t bad at all,” Gregory added. “The larger producers have the resources and expertise in the area of food safety. Small farms don’t have the resources to do this.”

He also said that, as with most sectors of agriculture, the egg industry has seen a consolidation of farms.

“Larger farms, larger companies with more sophisticated equipment, are in place today. In 1976, there were 10,000 commercial egg producers in the U.S., and now there are less than 200. Producers that had food safety and animal or environmental issues have gone out of business,” he said.

Patterson said the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which has jurisdiction over shell egg inspections, is now challenged with how to handle free-range producers.

“Access to the outdoors is a huge challenge to bio-security and a greater challenge from vermin and other birds,” he said.

Both can be predators of the hens, as well as possible Salmonella carriers.

“There are yuppie consumers who have helped create niche markets for types of eggs,” Patterson said. “There are a lot of options for eggs: cage-free, organic, Omega 3…not all are well-defined. Organic would be the one that is.”

For eggs to be labeled organic, the producer must register with the Agricultural Marketing Service and complete the certification process. This can take as long as three years and requires a great deal of paperwork on the part of the producer.

Utterback has concerns about the safety of eggs produced in any system other than traditional caged systems. He cites the increased access to manure as a main reason and also feels that smaller producers are not as well-regulated.

Suzanne Moss, director of the Egg Inspection Program for the State of Illinois, said that all producers in the state, regardless of production method or number of hens, are licensed and regulated.

Moss said the state does not have its own requirements for organic farms, which are certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. However, anyone who produces or distributes eggs in the state must have an Illinois license to do so.

Inspectors from Moss’ office travel to the production and distribution sites to inspect prior to the original licensure and then on an annual basis.

Moss further noted that applications have gone up each year, and there are now more than 1,100 large and small licensed producers in the state.

“More people are dealing in eggs,” said Moss. “Some have backyard flocks, but there are also more full-time producers. That speaks to the growth in the market for eggs.”

The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting is an independent, nonprofit newsroom devoted to coverage of agribusiness and related topics such as government programs, environment and energy. Visit them atwww.investigatemidwest.org.

© Food Safety News
  • Michael Bulger

    Interesting article, but I kept waiting to hear more about those who advocate for and/or defend farmers shifting away from conventional confinement. Even though this comes from an agribusiness-oriented newsroom, I’m surprised there’s no quotes from HSUS, Pew, sustainability farm groups or academics, etc.

    This compared to two conventional agribusiness groups and lots of words from the conventional farmer at Univ. of Illinois. And a few unflattering quotes denigrating “yuppie consumers” and chickens who are somehow too dumb to mind being in a cage, but simultaneously smart enough to be thankful they are in a cage.

    Good article, but lacking depth on one side of the debate.

    • MisterCadet

      The Humane Farming Association, by far the most effective large (250,000 members) farm animal organization, strongly opposes the “Rotten Egg Bill.” and considers HSUS “the most disreputable animal group in the country.” I encourage you to read about HFA and the many other animal groups and well known individual advocates who strongly oppose this legislation. It’s an interesting debate, free of the spin that both HSUS and the United Egg Producers have been using in order to push this ill conceived, self-serving legislation.

  • Barb3000

    I never saw such a long article that said mostly nothing. Its common knowledge that these producers want to continue business as usual, they don’t like change. Producing food items like this is what is driving the use of antibiotics that is given to all food animals that are housed in confined pens like these. I was raised in a chicken farming area of California and when I was a kid chickens had a good sized pen with a barn that had nests for the chickens to sleep at night and lay their eggs. There was a small square door with a ramp the chickens used to go in and out of their barn. I don’t recall anything in the newspapers about chickens dying of any disease. They were all vaccinated yearly. I think the farmer with the free range chickens has the right idea. He would be where I would go to buy my eggs.

  • Eric Gingerich

    I have worked with all types of layer housing systems and each has its drawbacks and attributes. In my opinion, each can be used to produce eggs humanely as long as they are managed properly.

  • Michele Jay

    “A chicken’s brain is the size of its eyeball,” Utterback said. “That
    isn’t too big. They don’t care they are in cages. They actually feel
    safer in here. They don’t have to worry about being attacked.”

    As a contributor on this site and veterinarian (and “backyard chicken” owner), I feel compelled to comment on the above quote. Perhaps it was taken out of context, but sad to see such a lack of understanding about animal behavior, welfare, and implications for large-scale poultry production. Anyone who has been around chickens knows the statement is not factual. I don’t have a romantic view of agriculture, and believe small to large scale farms alike have a place in our food system. We should look to animal behaviorists’ work in combination with other disciplines to find the science on how best to balance small and large scale agriculture and animal welfare without falling into a non-scientific humanizing of the issue…

  • Oginikwe

    People buy free range eggs because they taste better and are healthier. All contamination issues with eggs have come from factory eggs. I’ve not seen a single case of salmonella poisoning from free range chicken eggs because they have a more natural diet, sunshine, and fresh air. We’ve raised chickens for thirty years and eat raw egg all the time (cookie dough, cake batter, ice cream) and none of us or our guests have ever gotten sick.

    • LouWho

      Pass the science please? You make me want to cry.

      • Oginikwe

        Go ahead and have a good cry. Experience trumps whatever science you want to cite. Not just mine but everyone who has the land and the means to raise their own.

      • ocar

        5 samples from a 500 bird facility that is less than a year old is certainly all the science needed to prove freedom from SE.

        • LouWho

          I was referring to the post i responded to. However to your point I’d be more interested in the samples taken at a later date. Hy-Line (where this article says he sources his birds from) does an amazing job with quality control and breeding birds, the credit starts with them and then as more time goes by the producer can prove that he is successful at not introducing any salmonella sources in things like feed. Salmonella risk doesn’t disappear because you let the birds outside, you still need controls in place. Notice at no point did I say that I was against free-range, just the idea that free-range is inherently risk free in its nature. That idea is misleading and irresponsible. It is still up to the farmer to be proactive and scientific in his management practices.

          • undrgrndgirl

            free range is more about “quality of life” for the hens…