Today’s opinion article (May 26, 2018) by Roy Costa RS, MS, entitled “Rose Acres Farms: Another Bad Actor, or a Deeper Problem” deserves a rebuttal from the nation’s egg farmers.
Costa served as an expert witness for Marler Clark LLP when the 2010 Quality Egg Salmonella enteritidis outbreak occurred. Egg farmers today are providing a safe, wholesome egg for consumers while caring for the chicken and environment, so the title of his article suggesting a “deeper problem” is being challenged in this rebuttal.
When Costa stated there is an environmental impact, was he implying an impact on the air? The only reference to air was made in his opening statement that “industrial egg production stinks.” We see these “environmental claims” against not just egg production, but all of animal agriculture. Let’s analyze what large scale animal farms contribute to air pollution, specifically greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Animal agriculture for meat, dairy and eggs contribute only a small part of the U.S. GHG emission totals. According to the Environmental Protection Agency in 2007 only 2.8 percent of GHG emissions came from animal agriculture and manure management. This contrasts to the emissions from electricity generation at 34 percent, transportation 26 percent and industrial emissions at 12 percent. Since 1990, animal agriculture’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions has remained nearly constant. This is amazing considering increases in egg production of nearly 30 percent, meat production of 50 percent, and milk production of 16 percent. The fact that GHG emissions from U.S. animal agriculture have remained relatively constant while meat, milk and egg production has increased dramatically results from large scale animal agriculture operations that have worked to improve feed efficiencies, better manure management strategies and efficient use of cropland. Eggs consumed by the nation’s consumers have increased 13 percent during the last decade. Yet the U.S. egg production has significantly decreased its environmental footprint in the past 50 years, according to “A Comparative Assessment of the Environmental Footprint of the U.S. Egg Industry in 1960 and 2010.” That report noted that the total environmental footprint in 2010 for egg production was 54 percent – 63 percent lower than the environmental footprint in 1960.
There’s a reference by Costa to “important humanitarian issues concerning the care of the animals.” As an expert witness for Marler Clark, does this extend to granting Costa expertise in animal welfare? Five decades ago, egg farmers moved away from producing eggs from chickens running around on the ground to placing them in cages. The reason was to improve the liveability of the chicken. Mortality in conventional cages is half that of cage-free environments.
Cage-free increases the stress on chickens due to the establishment of a pecking order among the chickens. This behavior is to determine the social standing of the individual hens through pecking each other. The individual chicken lower in the social order is pecked the most. When chickens are housed in conventional cages with six chickens, the establishment of this pecking order is minimized compared to thousands of chickens in a cage-free environment. The “Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply,” a two-year study of different production systems, did not conclude that cage-free was the optimum system, but instead noted the mortality is nearly double that of caged systems.
In response to social pressures for production method changes led some egg farmers to invest in larger colony cages with enhancements such as perches and nest boxes. The result was this type of system led to more broken breast bones. Keel (breast) bone breakage was recently reported highest in the cage-free system over conventional cages. A clear indication that cage-free systems are not more humane than conventional cages. Dr. Maja Makagon, assistant professor of applied animal behavior at University of California-Davis Department of Animal Science, reported the increased bone breakage from collisions with perches in cage-free systems.
Dr. Ivan Alvarado, DVM with Merck Global Business, delivered an interesting presentation at the Minneapolis Convention Center on March 14, discussing external parasites in cage-free farms. Eighty-three percent of European cage-free egg farms are already infested with poultry red mites. This harmful mite is extremely costly to the poultry industry with annual European industry losses at EUR 360 million (U.S. $446.54 million). Red mites are not a problem in conventional cages. All 27 member nations in the EU are about 40 percent cage-free compared to 16 percent in the United States. Alvarado said an effective drug for Red Mites is Fluranaler and is in use in the EU. It has not yet received approval in the U.S. Subjecting poultry to parasites without the benefit of approved medication is inhumane.
Food safety is also implied to be compromised in conventional caged systems. The journal Food Control published a study June 17, 2014, entitled “Microbiological Contamination of Shell Eggs Produced in Conventional and Free-Range Housing Systems.” The conclusions show why cages became the preferred method of producing eggs. “Battery caged hens (conventional cages) are standing on wire slats that allow feces to fall to a manure collection system beneath the hens. Conversely, free-range hens (cage-free) laid their eggs in nest boxes on shavings and the eggs remained in contact with hens, shavings and fecal material until they are collected. The longer contact time with free-range hens, shavings and feces would explain the higher enterobacteriaceae counts on free-range eggs as compared to battery caged eggs.”
Penn State researchers in September 2016 published their research findings that eggs from small flocks of chickens are more likely to be contaminated with Salmonella enteritidis as eggs sold in grocery stores, which typically come from larger flocks of caged layers.
Now consider the benefits of large scale commercial farms. Researchers at the Egg Industry Center in Ames, IA, found that today’s hens are living longer due to better health, better nutrition and better living environments. These researchers studied U.S. egg production over a 50-year period, from 1960 to 2010. Today’s egg farmers are producing more eggs in 2010 than 50 years earlier. Using 1960 technology to produce the 2010 egg supply would have required 78 million more hens, 1.3 million more acres of corn and 1.8 million more acres of soybeans. In comparison to 1960 technology, today’s egg farmers are able to feed 72 percent more people. In combining all of animal agriculture, today’s American farmer feeds about 144 people worldwide. Approximately 85 percent of U.S. grazing lands are unsuitable for crop production. Grazing animals on this land more than doubles the area that can be used to produce food. Meat, milk and eggs are an essential part of a balanced diet because they are nutrient dense and are considered complete proteins, meaning that they contain all nine of the essential amino acids needed by humans. A 2006 United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report estimated total GHG emissions resulting from animal agriculture around the world and this may be reasons for claims. We must remember that applying global percentages from agriculture to the U.S. are misleading because the vast majority of global GHG emissions attributed to livestock production result from deforestation and converting rain forests and other lands to grow crops or pasture. Such changes do not occur in the U.S., which has seen an increase in the total acreage of forested land over the last several decades even while total agricultural production has increased.
Your readers need to hear the farmers’ side of these issues and I thank you for reproducing my opinion.
– Ken Klippen, BS, MS
President of the National Association of Egg Farmers
(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)