March 16, 2012

Incubating Public Health: Proposed Ban on Battery Cages

Brent Kim

Brent Kim

Project Officer, Food Production & Public Health

Center for a Livable Future

Hens in a battery cage. Photo credit: farmsanctuary.org

In the United States, for every citizen, there is roughly one laying hen. The majority of these birds are confined in battery cages, wire enclosures that typically afford each bird a space smaller than a single sheet of letter-sized paper.

This system is poised to undergo several major changes. Two unlikely allies, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the United Egg Producers (UEP), are jointly working toward the enactment of  H.R. 3798, a  federal amendment that would afford laying hens several welfare measures. These include a gradual shift from battery cages to “enriched colony cages,” more spacious enclosures outfitted with perches, nest boxes and scratching areas. Enriched colony cages would allow birds greater freedom of movement and the ability to perform certain natural behaviors.

The proposed changes are not a panacea, but they offer several notable improvements to public health and animal welfare.

Background

Over recent years, HSUS has campaigned against the use of battery cages, citing animal welfare and food safety concerns. The PEW Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, in which our Center was actively involved, also took a strong stance against the use of battery cages. In response to public pressure, Michigan and California have passed laws to phase out the use of battery cages, while various food retailers have agreed to switch to cage-free eggs (Burger King, Wendy’s and many others).

These changes did not come about without a fight. HSUS has regularly clashed with UEP, a group representing the majority of the U.S. egg industry. Both organizations have spent millions of dollars over proposals to ban battery cages.

Rather than continuing to wage costly battles, the leaders of both organizations opted to seek out common ground. The dialogue began when Gene Gregory, president of the UEP, reached out to Wayne Pacelle, president of the HSUS. After several months of negotiation, they agreed on H.R. 3798 as a compromise. More details on this historic agreement are available from NPR, Time Magazine and an earlier post on the Livable Future Blog.

Hens in a colony cage. Photo credit: jsWest

Public health

One of the prevailing food safety concerns regarding egg production is contamination with Salmonella, a bacterium that causes a reported 40,000 cases of illness in the United States annually.

Based on the limited amount of research in this area, it is uncertain as to whether a switch from battery cages to enriched colony cages would lower the prevalence of Salmonella in hens and their eggs. Although the evidence is not unequivocal, stocking density—the number of birds per cubic foot—may be a risk factor for Salmonella infection in laying hens. If this is the case, the additional space afforded by enriched colony cages may reduce levels of Salmonella contamination in eggs.

The proposed amendment also calls for a ban on forced molting, a practice that involves withholding food from birds for up to two weeks. This results in a temporary break in egg production, but a net increase in the number of eggs produced over a bird’s lifespan. Withholding food also induces considerable stress in birds, suppressing their immune system and increasing their susceptibility to Salmonella infection. For this reason, the ban on forced molting may lower levels of Salmonella in eggs.

Another measure included in H.R. 3798 is a cap on allowable ammonia levels within hen houses. The gas is emitted from animal waste, and can reach high concentrations in enclosed environments. Exposed workers often suffer from skin, eye, throat and lung irritation; exposure to very high concentrations can cause respiratory damage in both hens and humans. Measures to reduce levels of this airborne pollutant can benefit both public health and animal welfare.

Animal welfare

I asked Paul Shapiro, Senior Director of Farm Animal Protection at HSUS, for his perspectives on H.R. 3798 from an animal welfare standpoint. “The proposed changes won’t move birds onto ‘Old MacDonald’s farm,’ by any means,” he explained. “But between barren [battery] cages and enriched colony cages, the enriched cages are certainly an improvement.” Paul added that cage-free systems have far greater welfare potential for the birds, but without sufficient political will, a national mandate in favor of cage-free systems remains out of reach. Additional information on egg production and animal welfare is available through HSUS.

Next steps

The changes proposed by H.R. 3798 are substantial, if not revolutionary. Some might argue that a cage is still a cage; I argue that a larger, furnished cage, accompanied by welfare measures such as the ban on forced molting, is an improvement worth pursuing—particularly if some of those changes have the potential to reduce food safety risks.

It remains to be seen, however, whether the amendments will be passed by Congress. The National Pork Producers Council is one of numerous industry groups in opposition to the bill, saying it would set a “dangerous precedent” for federal involvement in food animal production. Among the bill’s supporters are the American Veterinary Medical Association, Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Farm Sanctuary and many other organizations. The amendment also has the support of Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD), a longtime champion of animal protection. The bill is, in his words, “The right thing to do.”

Stay tuned to the HSUS website to follow this groundbreaking legislation.

13 Comments

  1. HR 3798 would in no way replace battery cages. It would simply establish egg factory cages as a national standard that could never be challenged or changed by state law or public vote! Instead of outlawing cages — this crazy measure would outlaw the BANNING of cages. That is why it is being pushed by the egg industry itself! The Stop the Rotten Egg Bill (http://www.StopTheRottenEggBill.org) campaign is getting it right. Check it out. This bill would nullify California’s Proposition 2 – replacing it with a variety of empty “reforms” (such as those relating to ammonia levels and forced molting) that merely codify the egg industry’s own existing standards. This stinks.

  2. The beef and pork industries are doing everything they can to try to kill this important piece of legislation that will ban barren battery cages for all US egg-laying hens. Unfortunately, they have an ally in a group calling itself the “Humane Farming Association.”

    To learn the truth behind HFA’s attempts to raise money for battery cage status quo, please visit http://www.humanesociety.org/hfa

  3. Posted by Antonia Moore

    While I realize this legislation wouldn’t make life blissful for these most put-upon creatures in our country, it sure seems like a wonderful step. Thank you for writing about it! Is there anything you would suggest people do to show their support?

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  5. I second Antonia’s sentiments. Thank you so much for this feature. Every little step toward a more humane food system is an important one. Simply put, these hens deserve better.

    I also agree that an update with actions we can take would be great!

  6. Posted by Rina Khadivi

    As a supporter of the Humane Society of the United States I would like to thank the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future for this insightful and comprehensive blog post, detailing the importance for passage of H.R. 3798. I’d also like to applaud those eager to take action at such a vital time. H.R. 3798 will not only increase standards of welfare for hundreds of millions of egg-laying hens, it will also meet the desire of American consumers for more humane treatment of farm animals. Please click here to visit the HSUS’s webpage detailing how this bill will improve the lives of laying hens, and how you can help get it passed.

  7. Thank you Brent Kim for your blog educating readers about HR 3798. The nations’ egg industry needs & wants this in order to ensure clear consistent standards for everyone. The results of our first flock in the first ever Enriched Colony Barn in America has shown us that this housing system is good for the hens, good for our employees and good for the consumer. We’re so pleased that HSUS has deemed it as a healthful & humane way to house our laying hens. Please check out our website http://www.jswest.com and click on Hens Live! to see our hens in the Enriched Colony live, 24/7. You may find the eggs from these hens, Comfort Coop Eggs, at Rarely’s, Savemart, Nob Hill & Nugget Markets. If you don’t see them in your local market, please ask the manager to carry them!

  8. Let us be clear: HR 3798 if enacted WILL NOT BAN BATTERY CAGES. Batteries are identical units lined up in rows and stacked on top of each other. “Enriched colony” cages, as they are euphemistically called, will still be batteries and (obviously) they will still be cages. The photo in this article does not capture the true crowding of hens in these cages which, with their teensy furnishings, will quickly become as filthy and cobwebby as conventional barren cages. There is more to be said but the point here is that the proposed legislation does NOT BAN BATTERIES, so let’s at least use honest language when we talk about the conditions we are forcing these poor birds to live in – cruel and miserable – for the eggs that we steal from them. And remember the horrible way they die when they are no longer “productive.” The egg industry is 100% brutal. Karen Davis, PhD, President, United Poultry Concerns. http://www.upc-online.org.

  9. Posted by Scott

    Nice smear attempt, @Matthew (or should I say, this person calling himself “Matthew”?), but it doesn’t change the fact that HFA and other right-minded animal welfare organizations are opposing this legislation because it CODIFIES still-cruel, inhumane cages. The egg industry wants to pass this bill because cage-free initiatives were WINNING and they wanted to STOP them dead in their tracks–which HR 3798 does. Gene Gregory of UEP says it best: “Our battle that we would have lost would have been going from cages to cage-free.”

    Oh, and take a look at how “enriched colony cages” are working out elsewhere in the world: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RGPq8J5wfZI&list=UU9hVZ5FXCeo4OsLmyRwed9A&index=2&feature=plcp

  10. Posted by Jack Carone

    This amendment would codify animal cruelty into federal law. These meager “improvements” will not reach their unacceptable best for 18 years from its passage, and it will be decades after that before anything gets better. Also, there are no criminal penalties for violations, so no one knows what will really happen except a decades-long freeze in the ability to pursue any other superior legislation.. Astoundingly, HSUS’s own report on these cages, recently still found on their website, calls them unnacceptable. Likewise does Farm Sanctuary’s website, although they inexplicably support this bad legislation. It is a sellout, instigated by the egg producers to save cages and their industry. HSUS gave up for all of us, and is painting surrender as a victory.

  11. Great to see so much interest in this topic.

    I’ve noted the considerable amount of opposition to HR 3798 expressed here. I recognize that many would rather see laying hens raised entirely on cage-free, pasture-based systems, but this begs the question as to whether this is a feasible goal at this time. HR 3798 aims to achieve a large-scale reduction of animal welfare harms, with numerous potential co-benefits to human health. Is opposition to these measures allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good?

    Another point in favor of the bill: Arguably, one of the most effective measures in changing industry standards is to shift consumer demand. A meaningful shift in demand requires that consumers can make informed food choices. HR 3798, if passed, will require labeling on all egg cartons to inform consumers of the method used to produce the eggs.

    Here’s the Humane Society’s response to the ‘Stop the Rotten Egg Bill’ campaign: http://www.humanesociety.org/issues/opposition/facts/humane_farming_association.html

    Thoughts?

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