- Sourcing 100% cage-free eggs has become a popular trend among food manufacturers that use eggs in their products. But aviaries, the most common industrial cage-free alternative for housing egg-laying hens, bear their own risks and problems for the hens, employees and the environment, according to a new report from the Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply.
- In aviary systems, hen mortality is higher than traditional battery cages because it is easier for the hens to spread germs. Hens in this environment also tend to become more aggressive, including pecking at one another or even becoming cannibalistic.
- Aviaries can also increase health risks for employees who care for the hens and collect the eggs. This included being exposed to higher ammonia concentrations, dust levels and particulate matter emissions in the air, which can cause respiratory issues for workers.
However, this new report, which was produced by a coalition including egg producers and food companies that have committed to going cage-free, suggests that making such a commitment may take more consideration. If certain cage-free environments can increase health and safety risks for hens, workers or consumers, then making the switch and dealing with the backlash might not be worth it.
Manufacturers that use eggs and poultry in their products could contribute to research for designing better cage-free environments that solves some of the issues egg farmers have with aviaries. Such industry-funded research benefits the manufacturers, but it can also improve the lives of hens and farm workers, which can lift some of the concern or presumed bias that surrounds other industry research.
Pasture-raised hens seem to have an ideal environment, but it can be cost- and land-prohibitive to raise them this way on a mass scale and industrialized level. Other systems, like enriched colonies, offer hens more room and are more cost-effective, but they are enclosed and do fit the definition of "cage-free." But these ideas can inspire new systems that improve the lives of hens without causing additional problems that could be even costlier than reputation damage associated with animal welfare.
The logistics involved, including finding enough farmers that use cage-free environments to harvest eggs, could dramatically impact a company's supply chain and profitability. Companies that have made this commitment have often given themselves five or even 10 years to comply, and they may need that time to determine the best way to move forward.