Wednesday, August 26, 2009

HSUS and Meat Eaters

In response to my previous post, I received an email informing me that the majority of HSUS's Board of Directors are meat-eaters, and they can fire and hire the CEO Wayne Pacelle. Moreover, this Board is democratically elected by HSUS members. Furthermore, the HSUS building is occupied by some staff who are vegans, some who are vegetarians, and some who eat meat. The email also informed me that HSUS does promote pet ownership.

This is an important point, and one that needs to be understood by those debating the farm animal welfare issue. Yes, the CEO and many other positions of power within HSUS are filled by vegans who have a history of subscribing to certain animal rights. However, these individuals were elected to run HSUS by a membership that includes many, many meat-eaters. It is probable that the majority of HSUS members are meat-eaters and pet owners, though I do not have the stats to prove it.

The idea that the farm animal welfare debate is a struggle between ordinary people and extremists who have hijacked an organization with a fortunate name may be good propaganda but is not good logic. There is a large base of meat-eating, pet owning Americans who voluntarily elected Wayne Pacelle to improve the lives of farm animals. Those who dismiss animal advocacy groups on the basis of conspiracy theories are insulting the millions of ordinary Americans who simply want farm animals to have a better life.

Note: These posts are not made with the intention of promoting any animal advocacy group. I am not a member of any group, and I have friends on both sides of the issue. The posts are only intended to clarify the farm animal welfare debate so that consumers can better educate themselves.

Is there a "reasonable" group?

I have a number of friends who began following the farm animal welfare debate once they found out I was writing a book on it. Lately, they have all been asking me the same thing: is there an animal welfare group led by "reasonable" people. By "reasonable" people they are referring to meat-eaters who do not believe in bestowing animals with any "rights," but giving them a good life nevertheless.

Indeed, it is difficult to talk to anyone in the livestock industry about the animal welfare issues because they are so opposed to animal rightists that they refuse to acknowledge that the rightists may be right on some issues. "Better not treat chickens better," they say, "or we will start on a slippery slope towards veganism and the abolition of pets."

First, let me say that I know a few people in these groups, and while some may not view them as "reasonable", they are very nice people who I enjoy talking to. It does not surprise me that the most ardent supporters of better animal care also happen to be vegans and animal rightists. The leaders of Mother's Against Drunk Driving also similarly most likely to have extreme views on alcohol, probably in support of a complete prohibition. Moreover, some are not as opposed to farming as you might think. I had a pleasant conversation with Jennifer Fearing once, who was one of the most important promoters and organizers of Prop 2 in California, and she seemed sincerely interested in helping California egg producers comply and prosper under Prop 2.

Frequently I am asked whether there is any group promoting better care for farm animals who are also meat-eaters and who also do not support "rights." The Animal Welfare Institute comes to mind, but I have heard from a good source the leader is a vegan--which is an immediate turn-off to some people. I suppose the American Humane Association might be viewed as a "reasonable" group. The AHA certainly promotes the institution of pets, which animal rightists seem to oppose.

However, one must wonder why, if HSUS is not in the "reasonable" group, why it receives more donations than any other group? Livestock industries like to claim that they raise so much money largely because of their name, which makes people think they support local animal shelters.

If I was HSUS I would actively promote a meat-eater and perhaps a farmer within the organization. Even if it were a facade, I would make it clearly visible that meat-eaters are an important part of HSUS. That would help remove an obstacle to talking about farm animal welfare. Maybe then we could have a legitimate conversation on a large-scale about how farm animals should be treated, instead of allowing conspiracy theories to divide us into two enemy camps.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Streamed Videos Not Panacea

Feedstuffs recently ran a nice story about an interview with Temple Grandin, where Temple argues for live-stream videos of farms to mitigate concerns about farm animal cruelty.

However, most of the concerns about farm animal welfare regard matters that such videos will not address. People are concerned about outright cruelty, such as throwing baby pigs around and kicking chickens, but such behavior is rare and people know it. The support for HSUS's recent intiatives have to do with animal housing, and videos of the typical farm would only garner MORE opposition to conventional housing.

My own research shows that when you show people how layers and hogs are raised they are not pleased. When I show pictures of the typical confinement farm, the majority of Americans express disapproval. Showing videos in addition to pictures will only make this disapproval worse.

The pursuit of public approval is not going to be achieved by bringing Americans into the typical confinement facility. All they will see are animals confined to cramped cages in an unenriched environment, and my survey and experimental work reveals that Americans are strongly opposed to such conditions.

Instead, if PR is all that matters, I would encourage farms to run videos and stories concentrating on the improvements they are making. Americans understand tradeoffs, and they respect efforts to improve animals' lot. Even if these improvements are made on a very small scale, it will make a much better impression on the consumer than showing them videos of layers and hogs in a cage just slightly larger than the animal itself. Then communicate to the consumer that these improvements will require their help (in the form of higher prices, but you don't need to say that, consumers know it). This makes the consumer an accessory to the current system, and consequently, more accepting to the system. Again, this is assuming only PR matters and animal industries do not want to improve animal welfare.

But if you start running videos of layer and hog facilities, you might as well send donations to HSUS as well.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Great Egg Debate - The Question of Mortality Rates

Consider a thought, which I am unsure of myself. We typically think that lower mortality rates in cage-egg production is good. But if cage-egg production is as horrible for the birds as some people claim, is it better that a bird lives a longer or shorter life if it is suffering? Is it better for one bird to live a year in a cage, or two birds live one-half of a year in a cage? It depends on how suffering in a system relates to time, a question which I have no answer.

...just wondering!

The Great Egg Debate - What Each Side Needs To Admit

My job provides me the luxury of being able to thoroughly research topics which interest me, including the egg debate. Some of my time is spent talking on the phone with animal advocacy groups, some of my time is spent talking with egg farmers, and as anyone who has read my research knows, a very large portion of my time is spent with consumers.

This time doesn't make my views superior to others, but hopefully, helpful to others. Here are some items that both sides of The Great Egg Debate need to understand and admit, in order for this to be a real debate, as opposed to a contest between propaganda machines.

Farmers - Farmers tend to act a bit like the rambunctious attendees of townhall meetings. Knowing that I am an ag professor, they treat me like one of their own. Four out of five egg farmers who have conversed with claim that the animal advocacy groups know nothing about animals, do not care about animals, if I clean up the language. They claim the case for cage-eggs is a slum-dunk-deal. What these farmers are not admitting is that animals do have behavioral needs. Almost all of them contend that a chicken does not want room to walk, dirt to scratch, perches to stand on, and nests to lay eggs. This claim is absurd to anyone who has given the topic a fair and thorough treatment. Farmers need to acknowledge that layers do have behavioral needs, even if those needs sometimes do not serve a practical purpose, and that cage-free egg production meets some of these needs. Now, I understand why they try to ignore these needs (and they do evade the question of these needs, whenever I try to challenge them kindly on the subject they quickly change the subject), once you throw behavioral needs out the window cage-egg production looks much more desirable.

Animal Advocacy Groups - They know perfectly well that mortality and injury rates are higher in cage-free production but are reluctant to admit it. The rates may be higher due to the breed of bird used, the system, or other factors, but it is unambiguously higher in cage-free production. Yes, these rates will fall once farmers develop better cage-free systems and bird genetics more conductive to cage-free production, but currently more layers are going to be hurt and killed in a cage-free system. They too evade this question if I challenge them on it. Of course, whenever I talk to either side I don't challenge them too hard, in fear of alienating them--but I should not have to anger them by raising the topic.

The debate between cage and cage-free production is more than a debate between higher and lower food prices. There is a tradeoff for the birds as well, and this tradeoff needs to be publicly acknowledged. Hopefully Ham and Eggonomics is serving this need. Fortunately, when consumers are informed of the issue, they do recognize this tradeoff, as revealed in my research.

Finally, each side needs to understand that no one person or group has a monopoly of knowledge. Likewise, Ham and Eggonomics has no monopoly of knowledge. Developing a system of social goals for layers requires the participation of farmers, animal advocacy groups, scientists, consumers, and the like.

Climate Change and Food Prices

Readers are becoming increasingly aware that fighting climate change will raise food prices (see below). If we "should" try to curb emissions (which I personally am not so sure), then two things need to happen...

(1) Yes, overall food prices must rise. In the U.S., this would probably be more of a benefit than a cost. We eat too much, and would benefit from a reduction in calories. Emitting less gases does require us to be a little poorer.

(2) But more importantly, the relative prices of goods should change in a manner such that goods which emit more greenhouse gases cost relatively more, and those that emit less emissions cost relatively less.

The fact that food companies are remarking that food prices will rise only indicates that the proposed climate change bill is doing its job. If it did not alter our food consumption behavior through a change in prices, it would not be fighting global warming.

Food Firms Fret Over Potential Impact of Climate Bill

Coalition, Including Agricultural Giants, Plans to Draw Attention to Concerns That Legislation Could Lead to Higher Food Prices

Some of the nation's biggest food and agriculture companies are planning to release a flurry of studies in coming weeks that scrutinize the potential impact of climate-change legislation, warning that it could lead to higher food prices.

A group of agriculture giants including Cargill Inc., along with meat company Tyson Foods Inc. and food maker General Mills Inc., is concerned the companies might bear a disproportionate share of the costs of such legislation, according to a memo reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

Read More

Government, Health Care, and Food

As the country debates health care, many commentators have criticized claims that Americans have a right to health care by asking: do Americans have a right to a certain quantity and quality of food? We allow capitalism to provide our food needs, why not our health care? If we minimize the role of government in food, shouldn't we do the same for health care?

Those are useful comments, but one should keep in mind that if EVER food was inadequately provided by capitalism, government would immediately begin taking a larger role in food production.

Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of externalities in food production. These externalities include environmental pollution and animal welfare. They are increasingly calling on government to address these externalities, and if government begins responding, poor government regulations could begin to interfere with capitalism's ability to provide food, which would in turn spur government to take a larger role in food provision to fix the problems that they made.

This is exactly what has happened in health care. For example, government regulations require insurance companies to provide a certain standard of care. Those standards keep rising, which keep insurance premiums rising, pricing the millions of people without health care out of the market. Then we have people without health care, which leads people to call on government to fix that problem. Government involvement leads to problems which leads to government fixes, and the process repeats.

So, before we begin to allow government to have a larger role in food production, we should seriously consider this possible, perhaps probable, outcomes. I'm not saying government should not address these externalities, only that we should be cognizant about how regulation might play-out.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Ask An Egg Farmer

I have recently formed a friendship with an egg producing family that raises hens in both a cage and cage-free environment. They have graciously agreed to answer any questions readers may have.

So if you have any questions you wish to ask an egg farmers who intimately knows cage and cage-free production, please email me or list them in the comment section.

Please phrase the questions nicely.

Arguments for Veganism Are Not New

As society increasingly reevaluates its reliance on meat, a number of individuals have proposed that we should give up meat. One acre of cropland can feed more people when used to produce plant foods than when used to produce animal foods. Of course, some land is only fit for grass production, as this article by Dennis Avery illustrates.

As groups increasingly plea that we can feed the world if only we would stop producing so much meat, this will undoubtedly cause at least a few individuals to go vegan.

What is interesting about this debate is that it is not new. Even in the late 1700's and early 1800's some were arguing likewise. Also existing in the 18th Century were arguments that the slaughtering of meat degraded human character and that vegetarianism was a healthier diet. A historian on the matter has written...

"not only did the slaughter of animals have a brutalizing effect upon the human character, but the consumption of meat was bad for health; ... By the end of the [18th] century these arguments had been supplanted by an economic one: stockbreeding was a wasteful form of agriculture compared with arable farming, which produced far more food per acre."

Source: Colin Spencer, Vegetarianism: A History

As the Bible says...there is nothing new under the sun!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Great Egg Debate - Science, Not Emotion, Shows that Caged Laying Hens have Poor Welfare

Thank you to Sara Shields for providing the following contribution to Ham and Eggonomics.

Science, Not Emotion, Shows that Caged Laying Hens have Poor Welfare

By Sara Shields, PhD

Previous blog posts on Ham and Eggonomics have addressed the often-touted claim that concerns about the welfare of animals in intensive production facilities are based on emotion rather than science. However, the basis for opposition to the confinement of hens in battery cages is deeply rooted in objective scientific inquiry, and research on the topic is almost as old as the use of the battery cage itself.1

From the beginning of the debate, ethology (the study of animal behavior) has advanced understanding of the effects of cage confinement on the well-being of laying hens and, without a doubt, shown that there are very serious welfare consequences. Studies have demonstrated that there are two basic reasons for this: 1) the animals are deprived of the opportunity to express important natural behavior; and 2) the constraints of the cage prevent exercise, which has profound physical consequences for the health of the birds.

There seems to be a general lack of appreciation for the importance of behavioral expression as a component of animal well-being. Historically, it has been easier to comprehend the role of health, for example, in ensuring good welfare, while it’s sometimes been more challenging to see how behavioral restriction can reduce welfare. The science, however, tells a very compelling story.

One of the most important behavior patterns that hens are prevented from performing in a conventional cage is nesting. Observational studies of feral hens and wild Jungle Fowl (the progenitor of today’s domesticated chickens) have shown that hens will seek out a secretive, sheltered nesting site when they are about to lay an egg.2,3,4 Ethologists have investigated this behavior further in laboratory studies. They have shown that when hens do not have a nest box—as is the case when confined inside a typical battery cage—they express frustration with stereotyped, repetitive pacing movements just prior to oviposition (egg-laying),5 and make “gakel-calls,” the same types of behavior expressed in experiments with hungry hens who are able to see an expected food reward but are prevented from access by a clear Plexiglas-like cover.6,7

Using a methodology borrowed from psychology, ethologists have also investigated the “motivation” or “drive” that compels a hen to seek a suitable nesting site. By requiring an animal to “work” for access to a resource (in this case, a nest box), motivational level can be quantified. A common work task now used in animal welfare research is to require animals to push through a weighted door. Weight can be added to the door to determine how hard an animal will push to gain access to something they want, feed, a social companion or more space, for example, thereby giving an objective measure of motivational strength. It has been found that hens will push at a rate greater than 3000 Newtons/second to access a nest box 20 minutes prior to oviposition, harder than they will work to gain access to feed after several hours of food deprivation.8,9

The behavioral evidence is complemented by physiological studies. The internal drive to display nesting behavior is under hormonal control. Progesterone and estrogen released from the postovulatory follicle initiate pre-laying behavior 24 hours later, when the egg is nearly ready to be laid.10 In other words, the hen seeks a nest because her hormones tell her to do so when she is about to lay an egg. These hormonal signals are present no matter what the environment, whether the hen is in a backyard flock, a barn, or a cage.

While any one of these experiments alone would be highly suggestive, together they support a solid, scientifically-based argument that a hen is frustrated when she does not have access to an appropriate nest site. I could write much more (and, in fact, have done so here, with my co-author Dr. Ian Duncan) on the strong scientific evidence suggesting that hens also need to forage, perch, and explore, and that they enjoy dustbathing. Given the plethora of scientific research in the field of ethology and complementary scientific disciplines, it is disconcerting when the behavioral needs of hens are brushed aside in favor of arguing that concerns about the well-being of caged hens are based on emotion rather than science. There is a long history of scientific work demonstrating that animals have behavioral needs and that when these needs are not met in invariant, deprived, captive environments, there are real consequences for the animals.

If the aforementioned psychological impacts weren’t enough, there are also physical consequences when movement is severely restricted. For all hens, osteoporosis is a concern because calcium needed for shell formation is diverted from bone.11 Studies have demonstrated that restriction of movement, especially the thwarting of normal behavior such as stepping and wing-flapping, are a primary cause of bone fragility for laying hens12,13 and that exercise improves bone strength.14 Along with high-energy diets, restriction of movement and lack of exercise are also factors that predispose hens to fatty liver hemorrhagic syndrome,15,16,17,18 a disease in which excessive fat is deposited in the hen’s liver and abdomen.19,20

Cage layer fatigue was first identified when laying hen flocks were moved into cages during the advent of intensive farming in the 1950s and continues to be a “major issue.”21 The disease is “virtually unheard of” in birds who are not raised in cages.22 The skeletal system of hens suffering from cage layer fatigue can become so weak that hens become paralyzed.23 However, if they are removed from their cages and allowed to walk normally on the floor (that is, if they are allowed to exercise) and are given food and water, some may recover spontaneously.24,25,26 Unattended birds die from dehydration and starvation in their cages.27,28

Proponents of cage confinement will point to infectious disease concerns in cage-free housing, especially those that are transmitted by contact with manure. Yet cage-free barn eggs can be produced using slatted or perforated plastic mesh flooring, which just as effectively separate the hens from their manure. These types of solutions have always been used in breeding flocks (the parent birds of hens used in egg production), who are not confined in cages in commercial production enterprises. Disease concerns have been minimized in breeding flocks to levels these producers find acceptable. Many free-range egg producers also practice pasture rotation and often reduce stocking density, both of which are effective management techniques. These examples demonstrate that there are ways in which to appropriately address any potential disease concerns in cage-free systems. In contrast, severe restriction of movement is inherent to cages and thus will always be a problem for hens in intensive confinement.

While reduction of disease and predation are indeed important, the way that we choose to address those concerns should not be at the expense of other important welfare components. The price hens have paid as a result of caging them is far too high. They have lost all opportunity to display their rich, species-typical behavioral repertoire, and they are so intensively confined that they suffer severe physical consequences. The opportunity for a hen to have a good quality of life is completely denied to her in a battery cage.

Many animal protection organizations advocate for a housing system in which not just one or two of the welfare needs of the hen are met, but one in which hens are healthy and safe and in which they can express natural behavior that is important to them. That can be achieved in a well-managed cage-free environment, but, in a cage it is impossible to provide enough space for hens to express the behavior they want and need to express for their physical and psychological health.

At this summer’s Poultry Science conference, attendees learned that cage-free systems are being extensively adopted. While I attended the Keynote Symposium, Tomorrow’s Poultry: Genomics, Physiology, and Well-being, professors and breeders repeatedly asserted that we can incorporate welfare-friendly traits into selection indexes by, for example, breeding hens who are not predisposed to engaging in injurious pecking behavior. This conference only reiterated the successful studies that are already in the scientific literature.29,30,31,32,33

The scientific evidence is clear that battery cages reduce welfare and that cage-free egg production is a viable alternative. Although the reaction of large U.S. egg producers to cage-free systems has thus far been tepid, I trust that we all share the common goal of wanting to provide the best possible welfare for hens. The way to do that is to move forward, using innovation to address the needs of the hen. Working together, producers with more experience and know-how in cage-free production could lead the way in a transition to more welfare-friendly egg production systems, leaning on the scientific community to facilitate this much-needed shift. All the tools are available, leaving only the need for collective will within the industry.

Biographical sketch

Sara Shields earned her B.S. in Zoology from Colorado State University and her Ph.D. in Animal Behavior from the University of California, Davis, where she studied the welfare of chickens, and subsequently served in a post-doctoral capacity in the Animal Science department of the University of Nebraska. There, she was engaged in scientific research focused on laying hens and teaching courses on companion animals as well as animal welfare. Presently, Dr. Shields serves on the animal welfare advisory committee for Safeway stores and as a consultant for the Humane Society of the United States, among other organizations.


1 Brambell FWR. 1965. Report of the Technical Committee to Enquire into the Welfare of Animals Kept under Intensive Livestock Husbandry Systems. London: HMSO Cmnd. 2836.

2 McBride G, Parer IP, Foenander F. 1969. The social organization and behavior of the feral domestic fowl. Animal Behaviour Monographs 2:125-81.

3 Duncan IJH, Savory CJ, and Wood-Gush DGM. 1978. Observations on the reproductive behaviour of domestic fowl in the wild. Applied Animal Ethology 4:29-42.

4 Collian NE and Collias EC. 1967. A field study of the red jungle fowl in north-central India. The Condor 69:360-86.

5 Yue S and Duncan IJH. 2003. Frustrated nesting behaviour: relation to extra-cuticular shell calcium and bone strength in White leghorns. British Poultry Science 44(2):175-81.

6 Duncan IJH and Wood-Gush DGM. 1972. Thwarting of feeding behaviour in the domestic fowl. Animal Behaviour 20:444-51.

7 Zimmerman PH, Koene P, and Hooff JARAM. 2000. Thwarting of behaviour in different contexts and the gakel-call in the laying hen. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 69:255-64.

8 Follensbee ME, Duncan IJH, and Widowski TM. 1992. Quantifying nesting motivation of domestic hens. Journal of Animal Science 70(Suppl.1):164.

9 Cooper JJ and Appleby MC. 2003. The value of environmental resources to domestic hens: a comparison of the work-rate for food and for nests as a function of time. Animal Welfare 12(1):39-52.

10 Wood-Gush DGM and Gilbert AB. 1973. Some hormones involved in the nesting behaviour of hens. Animal Behaviour 21:98-103.

11 Riddell C. 1992. Non-infectious skeletal disorders of poultry: an overview. In: Whitehead CC (ed.), Bone Biology and Skeletal Disorders in Poultry. Poultry Science Symposium Number Twenty-three (Oxfordshire, U.K.: Carfax Publishing Company, pp. 137-8).

12 Knowles TG and Broom DM. 1990. Limb bone strength and movement in laying hens from different housing systems. Veterinary Record 126(15):354-6.

13 Nightingale TE, Littlefield LH, Merkley JW, and Richardi JC. 1974. Immobilization-induced bone alterations in chickens. Canadian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology 52(5):916-9.

14 Meyer WA and Sunde ML. 1974. Bone breakage as affected by type housing or an exercise machine for layers. Poultry Science 53(3):878-85.

15 Mississippi State University Cooperative Extension Service. Miscellaneous management related diseases. Accessed March 25, 2008.

16 European Food Safety Authority, Animal Health and Animal Welfare. 2005. Scientific report on the welfare aspects of various systems for keeping laying hens. EFSA-Q-2003-92, p. 28. Annex to The EFSA Journal 197, 1-23. Accessed March 25, 2008.

17 Crespo R and Shivaprasad HL. 2003. Developmental, metabolic, and other noninfectious disorders. In: Saif YM, Barnes HJ, Glisson JR, Fadly AM, McDougald LR, and Swayne DE (eds.), Diseases of Poultry, 11th Edition (Ames, IA: Iowa State Press, pp. 1082-3).

18 Squires EJ and Leeson S. 1988. Aetiology of fatty liver syndrome in laying hens. British Veterinary Journal 144(6):602-9.

19 Merck Veterinary Manual. 2003. Fatty liver syndrome: introduction, Merck Veterinary Manual Online, 8th Edition. Accessed March 25, 2008.

20 McMullin P. 2004. A Pocket Guide to Poultry Health and Disease (Sheffield, U.K.: 5M Enterprises Ltd., p. 123).

21 Leeson S. 2007. Metabolic challenges: past, present, and future. Journal of Applied Poultry Research 16:121-5.

22 Leeson S. 2007. Metabolic challenges: past, present, and future. Journal of Applied Poultry Research 16:121-5.

23 Riddell C, Helmboldt CF, Singsen EP, and Matterson LD. 1968. Bone pathology of birds affected with cage layer fatigue. Avian Diseases 12(2):285-97.

24 Mississippi State University Cooperative Extension Service. Miscellaneous management related diseases. Accessed March 25, 2008.

25 Webster AB. 2004. Welfare implications of avian osteoporosis. Poultry Science 83:184-92.

26 Riddell C. 1992. Non-infectious skeletal disorders of poultry: an overview. In: Whitehead CC (ed.), Bone Biology and Skeletal Disorders in Poultry, Poultry Science Symposium Number Twenty-three (Oxfordshire, U.K.: Carfax Publishing Company).

27 Riddell C, Helmboldt CF, Singsen EP, and Matterson LD. 1968. Bone pathology of birds affected with cage layer fatigue. Avian Diseases 12(2):285-97.

28 Riddell C. 1992. Non-infectious skeletal disorders of poultry: an overview. In: Whitehead CC (ed.), Bone Biology and Skeletal Disorders in Poultry. Poultry Science Symposium Number Twenty-three (Oxfordshire, U.K.: Carfax Publishing Company, pp. 137-8).

29 Appleby MC and Hughes BO. 1991. Welfare of laying hens in cages and alternative systems: environmental, physical and behavioural aspects. World’s Poultry Science Journal 47(2):109-28.

30 Appleby MC, Hughes BO, and Hogarth GS. 1989. Behaviour of laying hens in a deep litter house. British Poultry Science 30(3):545-53.

31 European Food Safety Authority, Animal Health and Animal Welfare. 2005. Scientific report on the welfare aspects of various systems for keeping laying hens. EFSA-Q-2003-92, p. 80. Annex to The EFSA Journal 197, 1-23. Accessed March 25, 2008.

32 Flock DK, Laughlin KF, and Bentley J. 2005. Minimizing losses in poultry breeding and production: how breeding companies contribute to poultry welfare. World’s Poultry Science Journal 61(2):227-37.

33 Ellen ED, Visscher J, van Arendonk JA, and Bijma P. 2008. Survival of laying hens: genetic parameters for direct and associative effects in three purebred layer lines. Poultry Science 87(2):233-9.

The Great Egg Debate - Talking To Egg Farmers

This afternoon I had the pleasure of talking with an energetic producer of both cage and cage-free eggs. This entry describes this conversation, and I omit his name in fear that I might misrepresent his views. This farmer and his daughter have indicated they might contribute to Ham and Eggonomics, so hopefully you will get to meet them soon!

I make it a habit to call egg farmers periodically to make sure my thoughts are grounded. Like every farmer I have talked to that raises cage and cage-free eggs, he has nothing but disdain for cage-free eggs, and believes anyone who shuns cage eggs in favor of cage-free eggs is misinformed.

His reasons are as follows. First, mortality is significantly higher in cage-free systems, largely due to pecking and injury by other birds. There is no debate regarding this fact. To favor cage-free implies that one must gain something that outweighs the damage inflicted by higher mortality.

Perhaps birds gain in the fact that they can now have enough room to walk? He argues that there is plenty of room in the cage for the birds to walk. But don't they have a lot more room to walk in a cage-free system? Yes, but they do not use it. When you watch the chickens in a cage-free system they always huddle together, leaving lots of empty space. So although you give the birds more space in a cage-free system, they don't use it. They don't want it!

What about perches and the ability to dust-bathe and foraging? Perches are used by birds to flee bully birds, a problem mitigated in cage systems. Dust-bathing and foraging were needed when birds lived in the wild, had to dust-bathe to fight parasites, and had to forage to eat. Inside egg facilities they no longer require these amenities, so being denied the opportunity to perform these acts is not a bid deal. But don't they still enjoy perches, foraging, and dust-bathing, even if they no longer need it? "I don't know," he says, it doesn't seem very evident to him.

Thus, to him, a cage-free system results in higher mortality rates with no offsetting advantage.

What do you think? If one was to be devil's advocate, one would argue that chickens really do like room to walk and act like a chicken. This video of free-range chickens suggests they do not just huddle together when given more room, and that they enjoy the greater room, but perhaps these breeds of birds are just different. One could argue that birds really do enjoy being able to act naturally by standing on perches and scratching. That is certainly what scientists believe who construct animal welfare ratings.

Regardless of whether you agree with my new friend, you must give his arguments some respect. This good person lives with birds in both cage and cage-free systems, and he deserves to be taken seriously. That is what the Great Egg Debate is about, offering your own views, listening to others, and forming your own opinion while maintain respect for those who disagree.

One final word: this farmer is absolutely right that moving to a cage-free system will entail a higher mortality rate.* The question is whether enough positive features exist to offset it.

*I know there are studies showing there is no statistical difference in mortality rates between cage and cage-free systems, when holding the breed of bird constant. One should not hold the bird breed constant when comparing cage and cage-free systems though, as they both use different birds.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Understanding The Agricultural College

Today my department (the Department of Agricultural Economics at OK State University) held a retreat to help identify goals for the upcoming year. The retreat hosted a mix of teachers, researchers, and extension agents, though everyone is a mix of at least two of these. While listening to the various discussions, it made me think of a feature of ag colleges many in the animal advocacy community might not understand.

I am a teacher and researcher. My goal as a researcher is generally to discover knowledge. I hold no allegiance to any group or industry, which I hope is evident in my writings. Within the farm animal welfare debate, I am charged with addressing the important questions and seeking answers, regardless of who benefits or is harmed by the answer.

Those in extension, however, are very different. They are charged with acting as consultants to specific industry and groups. It is within their culture to treat those certain individuals as clients, acting careful not to offend or anger their clients.

Many in agricultural colleges hold research & extension appointments, or hold one of the positions and work closely with the other. It is for this reason agricultural colleges sometimes appear biased, but often they are merely performing the job they are assigned. Besides, these relationships often result in fruitful outcomes. Working with industry can often create an environment of mutual trust, encouraging industry to consider a point-of-view that they would not normally consider when provoked by an "objective" researcher. One could make the case that the improvements made by the United Egg Producers were the result of these close partnerships.

It has been rumored that some agricultural colleges have responded to the farm animal welfare debate by acting in their clients' interest. That is, some faculty have been told to adhere a set of industry talking points. I am unsure of the extent to which this is true, but if it is, I would like some readers to understand that this might not be as bad as it seems. By having these slightly slanted parties working with industries, they may make more progress than their more objective counterparts ever could.

The Great Egg Debate - Are Cage Eggs Better?

Most of the research on hen welfare contends that layers possess a higher state of welfare when raised on cage-free versus cage egg farms. However, in my upcoming book I provide some evidence as to why someone might prefer cage eggs even if they believe birds suffer less in cage-free egg production.

In Chapter 8, titled Your Eating Ethics, I create a farm animal welfare model which describes the consequences of various food choices in terms of farm animal welfare using a mathematical model. The model allows me to consider the welfare impacts of consuming cage or cage-free eggs. My research indicates that it requires more laying hens to produce an egg in a cage-free system than a cage system. The breed of bird used is less efficient, they suffer higher mortality rates, and they burn more energy walking. This simple fact has important implications for whether cage or cage-free eggs are more ethical.

Suppose that you must describe the overall welfare of laying hens on a scale of -10 to 10. A negative number indicates that the bird experiences more negative than positive emotions, and would be better off if it had never existed. A positive number indicates that its life was worth living, and the higher the welfare score the happier (or less miserable) is the bird.

Suppose that you assign birds in a cage egg facility a welfare score of -8 (negative eight, that is), and birds in a cage-free facility receive a welfare score of -6. You believe hens to be better off on a cage-free farm, but only slightly, and you believe both systems to provide miserable standards of care.

When I crunch the numbers, I find that you shoul prefer that people consume cage eggs. The reason is that each cage-free hen suffers less than their caged counterparts, but each egg produced requires more cage-free hens than a cage eggs, leading to a greater number of birds that suffer.

Consider an example. We start with 200 million hens in a cage system. Pretend that all of the U.S. converts to cage-free eggs and consumes the same amount of eggs. My calculations suggest it would require 324 million hens to produce the same amount of eggs. While the 200 million initial hens are given a better life, there are 124 million extra hens that lead miserable lives. The mathematics of my welfare model suggests the bad outweighs the good, and that cage eggs are more ethical, if eggs are going to be consumed.

Which is better: 200 million hens living in a cage system or 324 million hens living in a cage-free facility? See the tradeoff? Of course, if I alter the welfare score for cage-free hens to equal -4, cage-free eggs then become the ethical choice. The morality of cage versus cage-free eggs depends on the productivity of the birds and perceptions about bird welfare under each system.

I am not writing this in order to promote cage eggs, but to articulate the complexity of farm animal welfare. The morality of various food items depends on more than the welfare of each animal in the food system. I know that this added complexity may frustrate some readers who wish to discover an ethical diet but find the task daunting.

Better to accept the truth of complexity than a simple but false notion.

The Great Egg Debate - Introduction

In a series of subsequent postings, Ham and Eggonomics will provide a forum on egg production, specifically, what the science about egg production implies about how we should raise layers for eggs. A wealth of research has already aimed at the welfare implications of cage, cage-free, and other production methods. What these postings will provide are alternative commentaries, hoping to provide curious readers with the additional information they must be seeking if they are reading Ham and Eggonomics.

Soon Sarah Shields, a Ph.D. animal scientist, will provide a narrative on the science of layer welfare. I am grateful to her willingness to help me disseminate knowledge. Other contributions will follow as I elicit help, including egg farmers. Stay tuned, and feel free to provide suggestions for contributors.

All entries related to this topic will go under the heading The Great Egg Debate- ???.

New Friends To Ham and Eggonomics

The purpose of Ham and Eggonomics is to provide a friendly forum for farm animal welfare issues. It has always been my intent to include individuals in addition to myself from both sides of the debate. I would be heartened to see individuals express a diversity of views in an amicable matter, rather than throw insults at each other from different corners of the internet.

Soon there will be new contributors to the blog. A few consultants at HSUS have elected to contribute, and even Peter Singer has suggested he might contribute a few entries. However, I am still looking for some friends in the livestock industry to become part of the process.

I am hoping some individuals become co-administrators of the blog, but understand some people may only want to contribute a few pieces and that's it.

So get ready to hear from some new people, and if anyone out there is interested in becoming a partner with me, please let me know. And understand that I am not looking for a group of contributors with a common mission. If all contributors disagree, that is fine. So long as the discussion is friendly, the blog has achieved its mission.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Profitability of Free-Range Egg Production

This posting provides a brief economic analysis of the free-range egg production farm I described earlier.

In the first six months of 2009 their revenues were $1906 revenues from about 525 dozen eggs and their variable expenses (not including fixed costs) equaled $976. The corresponding profits of $930 is a pittance compared to the labor involved.

One of the sons spends at least 2-3 hours per day with the birds and spends the majority of each Saturday at the Farmers' Market. Assume that his opportunity cost of labor is $10, and let us only count his eight hours of labor at the Farmers' Market. Over six months, four Saturdays in each month, eight hours per Saturday, at $10 per hour, and his opportunity cost amounts to 6*4*8*$10 = $1,920. Remember this does not count his non-Saturday labor, which over one week is greater than his Saturday labor.

These calculations suggest that the free-range egg production system is a failure in terms of ability to generate profits. One would only want to engage in this type of production if they found a particularly high personal reward working with the chickens. This person and his family belongs to a Mennonite-like family, and they probably place a large value on being able to work as a family and not inside traditional society.

Moreover, the manager of the eggs really knew his stuff. He could calculate costs for various components of the farm like he had a computer in his head, and he seemed to know every chicken personally. He was smart and focused on trying to make a profit. If he can't make a profit, I doubt many others could either.

These quick calculations, and my mulling over the details of my visit, leave me dubious as to whether anyone could make a reasonable profit in free-range egg production.

Feeding the World, Treating Animals Kindly

In the farm animal welfare debate, traditional production methods are often criticized on the grounds that alternative methods cannot feed the world the same way as factory farming. In a previous post I described a free-range egg farm. If we compare cage and free-range egg production according to which can produce the most eggs using the fewest inputs, cage eggs will demolish free-range eggs.

Free-range egg production does not generate desirable profits, as I described previously. It is inefficient in the sense that few eggs are produced from each bird, and the number of farms in which free-range egg production can take place is limited. There must be a farmers' market close by, or another marketing outlet. The farm must have the right type of pasture for production to take place. Now, with the right premium there could be a large volume of free-range egg production taking place, but it will not rival cage production.

At this point it is natural to deem free-range egg production a failure in its ability to feed the country. I disagree with the thought experiment from which such conclusions are drawn. It is true that if cage eggs were banned and only free-range production was allowed (whether by government or consumer decree), prices would be higher and quantity consumed would be less. However, this may not be as bad as it initially sounds. As price rises consumers will voluntarily purchase less and food processors will be motivated to produce viable egg substitutes. These substitutes already exist, but if the profitability of the industry increased better products would inevitably result. Consumers would also substitute for egg in other ways. They might consume more yogurt in place of eggs.

The point is that consumers do not lose by an amount equal to the value of the foregone eggs. The lose by an amount equal to the difference between the value of the foregone eggs and the value of the next best substitute.

The point is that a higher price and smaller quantity does not mean that consumers are walking around their house complaining about the lack of eggs. They substitute towards other products, taking care to use eggs when its value is greatest. For example, there are many substitutes for scrambled eggs (e.g. yogurt, bacon, cereal) but there are few substitutes for eggs when making whole wheat bread. Thus, eggs will be utilized proportionally less in direct egg consumption and proportionally more in indirect consumption.

What do consumers get in return for having to find slightly less desirable substitutes for eggs? The satisfaction from knowing that chickens are happier. This could be a trade consumers are willing to make.

When judging alternative egg production systems, we should not judge the alternative by its ability to generate the same production level as cage eggs. It should be judged by (a) the reduction in egg consumption that will take place (b) the desirability of the substitutes used to make up for less eggs and (c) the value consumers place on hen welfare.

Friends at the Dinner Table

My experience and survey work suggests that most people have similar views regarding what constitutes the worst practices at farms. This goes for animal advocates and hunters, as this pleasant story shows. Even if people and groups do disagree, they should do so with dignity. It saddens me to read the blogs demonizing Trent Loos, as I know him personally and believe him to be a perfectly decent person. It saddens me to hear certain people in industry demonize animal advocates as well.

That is why the story in the above link brought me so much pleasure. More of it, I say!

(Thanks to Jennifer Fearing for recommending the article)

Subsidies For Animal Welfare

A recent news story describes how the Irish government is subsidizing farmer to help them make the investments necessary to comply with new egg welfare standards (thanks to Paul Shapiro for the reference).

In one sense these subsidies are good. Egg producers have been producing the exact egg that consumers have been demanding. Then comes a government regulation forcing them to completely change how they raise eggs (partially due to a new consumer preference profile). This requires taking a million dollar building and spending thousands more to convert it to an enriched cage facility (why not cage-free, I wonder?). I have strong empathy for these farmers. For government to provide assistance in this conversion seems fair, and some of my survey work suggests that the financial welfare of farmers is twice as important as animal welfare, so it should be viewed favorably by citizens as well.

However, there is a long history of such subsidies becoming permanent welfare. After the conversion has taken place, I have no doubt that Irish farmers will devise a long list of alternative reasons for the subsidies. Perhaps farmers in another country receive more subsidies, allowing them to produce at a lower price. Perhaps corn prices rise, which increases the cost premium of producing enriched-cage eggs (as the birds in an enriched-cage system probably convert grain to meat less efficiently). Furthermore, if they remove the subsidies farmers will scream, but if they keep the subsidies in place no one will be screaming at the tax dollars used because it is almost invisible and a small sum to any one citizen, so why would a politician ever remove the subsidies? Remember the U.S. in 1996, when we thought farm subsidies would be dead in ten years? Of course, there has been instances when government boldly discontinued agricultural subsidies. New Zealand is an excellent example.

The subsidies might not even help the farmers. These subsidies encourage more production of enriched-cage eggs, lowering prices and profits to all farmers. Whereas if farmers were forced to pay for the conversion themselves, it would discourage other farmers from making the conversion, leaving them in a market with less eggs and higher prices. It is possible that the subsidies will actually decrease the profits received by farmers over a long horizon. It depends on the competitiveness of the Irish market with international markets.

From a social perspective, if subsidies are used, it is best that the legislation make clear they are temporary, and pose significant obstacles to their continuation. I would bet $50 it doesn't happen. Any takers?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Free-Range Egg Production

Last week I had the opportunity to visit a free-range egg farm located a few miles from my house. The farm is run by a religious family, not Mennonites, but close. Many aspects of the farm were appealing. The hens roost on perches inside a converted sileage hopper during the night, carefully secured (mostly) from predators, mainly raccoons. The hens have ample room such that no fighting occurs and no beak trimming is necessary. They are let outside in the morning where they quickly begin foraging for bugs, grass, and the family's leftovers.

The day I visited the leftovers were squash.

The hens were busy little animals, with roosters scanning the skies to check for predators and occasionally bringing a hen the gift of a bug it had caught. Bugs and grass were but supplements; the hen-house provided all the grain they cared to eat. The hens would come back to the hen-house during the day and lay eggs in the individual straw-ladden nests. The farm simply had every single thing a chicken could ask for in terms of animal welfare. They had plenty of room, desirable nests, ability to behave naturally, etc.

Except one: predator protection. Last summer the farmer was carrying for 250 hens, but lost 50 of the hens to hawks. When I asked him what they did with spent hens, the answer was that they never had spent hens. A predator would always kill the hen before she matured into the unproductive portion of her life.

This farm exemplifies the same tradeoff involved in cage and cage-free egg production. A hen has freedom to walk and behave naturally in a cage-free system, but is frequently injured by other hens. In the free-range system she is afforded even more room and allowed a more natural life, but suffers 25% mortality rates due to predators.

So where does Bailey buy his eggs? I still purchase from this free-range farm, well aware of its drawbacks. Moreover, I would not blame someone for shunning eggs from this farm due to the predator problem. Though that person has different preferences from mine, their preferences are understandable and I would not seek to force free-range eggs upon them. Studies have found that hens are more stressed in a free-range environment, probably due to the constant threat of predators, but I must say these hens did not seem stressed. Many would wander far, far away from the hen-house (as you can see in the video below).

I simply enjoyed being on the farm, and I guess that makes it more appealing to me. It was also nice that I could visit the farm. I tried hard to visit a large-scale egg production facility this summer but no one would allow me to visit. Perhaps if I did visit I would change my mind.

There is probably some reader who has considered free-range egg production but wanted to see it for themselves and learn more about it. Hopefully, this short posting, the pictures, and the video provides them with the information they sought. The people who purchase these free-range eggs at the farmers' market are probably unaware that so many hens die from hawks. I wonder how many would purchase eggs from the grocery store instead if they knew?

(See video of farm below)

Monday, August 3, 2009

Superstition and Organic Food

A recent survey found that not even butchers understood the difference between organic and regular beef. Some even thought the organic beef was certified by the RSPCA.

Truth is, when it comes to food safety and health, no one is supposed to understand organic food. No one understands ghosts, no one understands angels, no one understands why consumers pay more for a good with a pretty label, no one understands why placebos work, and no one understands why the mystical properties of organic food is supposed to make it healthier.

No one really understands supertitions and marketing ploys, which is what organic food really is.

Except for farm animal welfare. Most of the time, organic food is more humane. That I understand completely.

Correcting Science

Researchers who claimed to find a link between red meat and colorectal cancer have now admitted that their study contained flaws and are writing a letter to the USDA stating so.

We will never know whether it was an honest mistake. What is known is that there is a small but vocal group who are determined to make meat a villian, or any other food produced from animals. If these groups become continually exposed as liars, they will soon become insignificant in the public's eye.

I have been a scientist for a few years and have learned that science is more about being honest than following the scientific method. The manner in which 90% of researchers and concerned citizens approach the issue of animal food production is embarrasing, because idealogy trumps honesty over and over and over.

But not at Ham and Eggonomics. Never, never, never.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Benefits of Organic Food

Good discussion of organic food the its lack of health benefits. What seems to busy missing in this and other discussion is that, although organic food does not provide health benefits, it does contain some provisions that result in higher animal welfare. You may not be any happier eating organic fooods, but the animals generally will.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Food Debates

An excellent food discussion is being held at Reason Hit & Run. I personally have enjoyed society's recent interest in food, and have learned not only more about food but how people think about food.

I love and respect the diversity of food preferences, and part of me can understand certain romances and superstitions about certain foods (e.g. organic food). I wanted to be a hog farmer until I spent time working in a factory farm, and decided I did not want anything to do with that. Likewise, I would only work on a farm resembling the small, family, organic farm, even though I think organic food is silly.

My only concern is that we have a tendency to believe that our preferences should be reflected in government policy. For example, I disagree with Michael Pollan on almost everything, but have no desire to publicly oppose him until he calls for things like government regulations requiring a certain amount of food to be grown locally.

Unfortunately, this is what happens when government has an extraordinary amount of money to dole and a perpetual tendency to subsidize one group's preferences with money earned by other groups.

I purchase eggs from a local freee-range farm, with the understanding that they have serious predator problems. There is something about their old-style farming that I just love. There is not one bone in me that wishes to impose my preferences on you though. I wasn't always like this. It took years of economic study.

I urge you. Learn more about food. Tell me what you learned. Have fun. But be humble. Don't try and get your politicians to force my dinner table to look like yours.