Are cramped chickens crazy chickens?
Researchers are trying to answer that question through several
studies that intend to take emotions out of an angry debate between
animal welfare groups and producers.
At issue are small cages, typically 61cm
wide by 65cm deep, that can be shared by
up to nine hens. About 96% of eggs sold in the United States
come from hens who live in the so-called battery cages from the day
they're born until their egg-laying days end 18 to 24 months later.
Public opinion appears to side with those who oppose the cages.
Voters in California approved a proposition last year that bans
cramped cages for hens. And Michigan's governor signed legislation
last month requiring confined animals to have enough room to turn
around and fully extend their limbs.
How housing affect hens
Peter Skewes, a Clemson University researcher, is leading one of
the studies comparing how different housing affects egg-laying
hens. He said there are plenty of "emotional" opinions about
whether the cages are inhumane, but few are based on facts.
"Hopefully we will contribute something so decisions can be made
based on science and knowledge about how we house birds and the
implications for different systems," said Skewes, who is in the
early stages of a three-year study funded by the US Department of
But even as Skewes and others conduct research, some question
the need to study an issue they argue was resolved long ago.
Bruce Friedrich, a spokesman for People for the Ethical
Treatment of Animals, said banning the cages is a solution to an
"Think about the ... effects of not moving for up to 24 months,"
Friedrich said. "Their bones and muscles waste away and they go
Paul Shapiro, senior director of the Humane Society of the
United States' Factory Farming Campaign, agreed.
"The egg industry is trying to muddy the waters by misleading
people into believing that it's possible to confine birds in
barren, tiny cages and have high welfare," he said.
Caged hens healthier: producers
Producers see it differently, claiming caged hens are healthier
and satisfied with the only lives they've ever known. Although the
chickens can't fully extend their wings, producers contend they're
not stuffed so tightly that they can't move around the cage.
"Is this animal cruelty? This absolutely is not," said Bob
Krouse, an egg producer based in Mentone, Indiana, and president of
the United Egg Producers industry group.
Or as KY Hendrix, owner of Rose Acres Farms in Seymour, Indiana, puts it, "We can produce a better egg, produce a healthier
chicken if we keep them inside."
Producers began experimenting with hen cages in the late 1950s.
By the early 1970s, cages were commonly used for egg-laying hens
and are now the standard home for hens, which can lay up to 300
eggs a year.
Hens lay eggs for up to two years, then typically are used as
meat for humans or animal feed.
Whether they're a delaying tactic - as animal welfare groups
claim - or needed research, studies on chicken cages are
Emotions and behaviour will be studied
Skewes will compare emotional and behavioural patterns of caged
hens with non-caged counterparts. Part of that will including
studying behaviours such as wing-stretching, perching and foraging.
"We're looking at what ... things they would still do if given
the opportunity," Skewes said. "So you deprive them of that, and
the welfare component is, so what? There are difficult questions."
Another study, coordinated by the University of California at
Davis and Michigan State University, weighs several issues
involving caged chickens, including their welfare and impact on the
environment and human health as well as food quality and safety.
The study, funded by the American Egg Board, also considers the
economics of egg production. In California, producers estimated the
voter-backed rules would add about 1 cent to the cost of each egg,
but Krouse put the cost at up to 50 cents per dozen eggs.
"We hope we can say ... what the effect is going to be on
prices, the environment and on the welfare of hens," said Joy
Mench, a UC Davis researcher.
UC Davis and Michigan State also plan another study that will
include several advisers, including food companies such as
McDonald's and Cargill Inc., the Department of Agriculture's
Research Service, and groups such as the American Veterinary
Medical Association and the Centre for Food Integrity.
Mench said that study will examine egg production
sustainability, hen welfare, worker safety, food safety and food
Dr Gail Golab, director of the veterinary association's Animal
Welfare Division, said she hopes the studies can clarify the
"A number of us that work in the animal welfare field are
frustrated at efforts to say one system is all good or all bad and
not being able to quantify welfare values," Golab said. "We want
to) look for the best possible solution we can for raising these
animals."- (Michael J Crumb/Sapa-AP, November 2009)