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Cage-free eggs: a PR battle or concern for animal welfare?

To a lot of consumers, cage-free eggs probably seem like they are the best thing ever. Almost every week another restaurant or retailer is pledging to transition to a 100 percent cage-free egg supply, but these complex decisions have more implications for food costs, supply chain logistics and even animal welfare than many realize.

A one-sided story in the media

It’s not hard to understand where many people get the idea that cage-free egg production is ideal. The news coverage of the cage-free movement is picturesque. Animal rights organizations, such as the Humane Society of the United States and Mercy for Animals, are often quoted as claiming they “worked with” the company and want to express their appreciation for a “step in the right direction” for animal well-being.

What is often left out of the story is how those groups try to influence companies in their decisions to go cage-free.

Activist pressure, praise and repeat

Animal rights groups are notorious for “pressure campaigns.” They target a consumer-facing brand, restaurant or retailer with an often misleading campaign which aims to put the company in a spotlight as being supportive of animal mistreatment. With sales and a reputation on the line, the company needs the negative attention to cease.

The Humane League, another animal rights organization, placed an online ad for a “Kroger Campaign Organizer” to launch a pressure campaign against the grocery by motivating “local consumers to boycott their Kroger and Kroger subsidiary locations.”

Mercy for Animals recently launched a pressure campaign against Safeway. One of their tactics included a snapchat asking their followers to “politely ask why Safeway continues to torture egg-laying hens in tiny cages when Trader Joe’s, Target, CVS and Costco have committed to going 100 percent cage-free.” The message included the Safeway CEO’s name and a phone number. Less than a week later the Albertson’s Companies (one of the largest food and drug retailers in the United States which includes Safeway) announced they would be going 100 percent cage-free by 2025.

To think that activist pressure will cease once a pledge is made is just not the case. Animal rights groups pressure a restaurant or retailer to change their sourcing policies, then praise them once a new policy is announced only to repeat and pressure the food company again. They either argue that the food company isn’t moving fast enough and demand a quicker timeline or argue that cage-free isn’t enough and hens need to be raised on pasture.

cage free eggsShouldn’t science have a say?

Many of the recent policy announcements are based on animal rights activist demands and what some consumers think is best.  Letting hens out of cages sounds like a rational decision for animal welfare, but many fail to address what science says is best.

The Coalition for a Sustainable Egg Supply is a multi-stakeholder group made up of leading animal welfare scientists, academic institutions, non-government organizations, egg suppliers, and restaurant and food retail companies. The Coalition conducted a three-year study to evaluate various laying hen housing systems by considering the impact of multiple variables on a sustainable system. The three types of housing evaluated were: conventional cages, cage-free aviary and enriched colony cages. The research assessed five areas of sustainability: animal health and well-being, food safety and quality, environmental impact, worker health and safety, and food affordability.

The final results revealed that in regards to animal health and well-being, cage-free has substantially worse cannibalism/aggression and keel (extension of the breastbone) damage compared to both conventional and enriched colony systems. Both cage-free and enriched colony have better tibia/humerus strength and feather and foot conditions compared to hens raised in conventional cages and the enriched colony proved to have the lowest mortality rate compared to both the conventional and cage-free systems.

In terms of worker health and safety, the cage-free had substantially worse particulate matter exposure and endotoxin exposure compared to the conventional cages and enriched colony. For the environmental aspect, the enriched colony has substantially better ammonia emissions, while the cage-free has substantially worse indoor air quality and particulate matter emissions with slightly worse natural resource use efficiency.

Bird health, worker safety and product sustainability are complex topics, and reducing them down to just cage size is an extreme oversimplification. Instead of following the commitment to continuous improvement based on science and selecting the solution that works best for their individual operation, most egg farmers are being forced to switch to cage-free systems with risk of being dropped by their buyer if they don’t comply. This would understandably frustrate any farmer.

Take action and stand with science 

Farmers and ranchers are not only committed to continuous improvement, but they also hold the experience of caring for their animals every single day. They work tirelessly to provide a safe, affordable and nutritious food supply for people who take it for granted.

Some animal rights groups may act like they have the best intentions in mind, but in reality they are only moving our society towards a more vegetarian and vegan way of life. They want prices to increase and eventually take milk, meat and eggs off your plate for good.

Whether you are a restaurant, retailer or consumer, I challenge you to stand with science, not animal rights extremists.

 

Roots in Pennsylvania stem a love of agriculture

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The road that takes our food from fields to our plate may never cross the minds of grocery shoppers. Most people are far removed from life on the farm and even I was one of them. I never thought about the farmer when my mom placed down a delicious, golden brown chicken divan casserole on the table. I did not think about the hours a farmer spends tending to his flock of chickens, the laborious work of the dairy farmer to ensure his cows are healthy and cared for, or the farmer in the fields checking on the broccoli plant’s growth. Now that I have got you hankering for some good home cooking, I’ll introduce myself.

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My parents who encouraged me to chase my dreams.

Where I Came From

My name is Abby Laubach and I am in my final semester at the University of Delaware. I am a double major in Animal & Food Science and Agriculture & Natural Resources with a minor in Food and Agribusiness Marketing and Management. I am originally from a small town in eastern Pennsylvania just a little bit south of the Pocono Mountains. I was exposed to agriculture at a young age, even if I didn’t know it. My grandparent’s home sat next to a large field where a retired farmer kept a few head of cattle. I can still remember running to the edge of the field to ‘moo’ at all the cows. My father enjoyed listening from an upstairs window where he would ‘moo’ back to me, only reinforcing my idea that I was going to be the next Dr. Dolittle.

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My first pet, Kiara and I snoozing on the couch.

Since a young age I dreamed of working with animals so I started my journey at Delaware majoring in pre-veterinary medicine. My first semester of my college career, I was exposed to the world of animal agriculture. Within my first year, my eyes were opened to all the opportunities within agriculture and I decided to change my major and pursue a degree in animal science. Since my first days at Delaware, I have dabbled in the various aspects of animal agriculture including animal behavior, nutrition, genetics and physiology. But most of all, learning about agriculture has cultivated pride in our food system.

Where I am Going

Recently, I was forced to look at my future, every college kid’s worst nightmare. I had the assignment of completing a career report, an in-depth explanation of what I planned to do with the rest of my life. After some serious soul-searching, I realized that all my career paths had one underlying commonality; I wanted to help farmers succeed. The passionate individuals who work tirelessly day in and day out to put food on the plates of Americans all across the country; the same individuals047 who were instrumental in the chicken divan casserole that my mom made all through my childhood.

Today, there seems to be a lot of negativity that swirls around the agriculture industry. Documentaries and news articles that falsely demonize some of the hardest working individuals who put the food on your family’s table. Instead of giving in to fear-mongering mass media, ask someone who lives and breathes agriculture. We are right here in plain sight, and we would love to share our passion and knowledge with you! One last thing to remember, if you ever happen to stumbled upon a farmer, say thank you, they deserve it.