Tuesday, August 11, 2009

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.