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Study: Social sustainability of egg production

The results from the first stage of a broad and multidisciplinary study of issues relating to the sustainability of laying hen production systems will be the presented at the 99th Annual Meeting of the Poultry Science Association (PSA) in Denver in mid-July.

The purpose of the study, which is being funded by the American Egg Board, is to identify what is known – and what is not known – about different laying hen production systems, from the point of view of sustainability, said PSA.

The findings will be presented at a PSA Emerging Issues Symposium: "Social Sustainability of Egg Production". The symposium will summarise an extensive review of academic literature relating to sustainability issues, a great deal of which has been generated in the last decade but which has never before been gathered together systematically for concentrated review under the rubric of sustainability.

The literature review has been conducted by a group of approx. 40 scientists, economists, philosophers, social scientists and other experts, according to Joy Mench, D.Phil., professor and director of the Center for Animal Welfare at the University of California, Davis, and one leaders of the project. For the purposes of the study, sustainability is defined to include issues relating to: hen welfare; environmental issues; egg production economics; worker health and safety; food safety; and public values, attitudes and perceptions relating to egg production.

Dr. Mench: "The US egg industry is receiving pressure to change its production practices, particularly as these practices relate to the welfare of laying hens in conventional cage systems. The pressure is particularly acute because of the impending elimination of these conventional cage systems in Europe, beginning in 2012, following a EU vote in 1999 to ban them. In the US, we have begun to see individual states following suit. California's passage of Proposition 2 in 2008, for example, will, as written, effectively outlaw the use of conventional cages in the state beginning January 1, 2015. A similar law was recently passed in Michigan. We believe it is important to understand the broad ramifications of these and future changes – changes that may have an impact on hen welfare, certainly, but that will just as certainly generate ripple effects far beyond that particular issue as well. It is this broad array of potential animal welfare, economic, food safety and other issues that we hope to better understand."

Alternative housing systems

To date, 2 types of alternatives to conventional commercial cage housing systems for laying hens exist. Non-cage systems, as the name implies, allow the hens to roam throughout a building, providing them with opportunities to perform more of their normal behaviors. Furnished (also known as enriched) colony systems, the other alternative type of housing system, also provide more freedom of movement because they are larger than conventional cages and, in addition, are equipped with perches, nesting areas, and material that is designed to facilitate foraging and dust bathing behavior.

Findings, next steps

The several dozen participants in the literature review study were organized in teams around the different sustainability issues. The chairs of these teams will present papers on their findings at the symposium. The entire series of 8 papers to be given at the symposium will then be published in Poultry Science, an academic journal published by the PSA.

"The first goal of this project – the broad review of extant literature on sustainability issues – has been completed," said Dr. Janice Swanson, who is the Director of Animal Welfare at Michigan State University and a co-leader of the project. "Our second goal has been to gain input from the many stakeholders affected by this set of issues, including the egg and poultry industries, allied industries like retailers, and a variety of NGO's (non-governmental organizations), including animal and environmental welfare, and consumer-oriented organizations. Input from a stakeholder workshop held in February has been collected and will be discussed at the PSA Annual Meeting."

The final goal of the project, according to Dr. Mench, is to develop future research priorities, based on the initial literature survey, and then to seek funding to carry out that research. Some of these priorities are already coming into focus.

Dr. Peter Holt, of USDA-ARS in Athens, Georgia, and the author of a paper to be given at the symposium, entitled "The Impact of Housing Systems on Egg Safety and Quality", noted: "Current information regarding safety and quality of eggs produced under different housing situations is inconsistent and, in many cases, contradictory. Much more study is necessary to determine whether moving to alternative housing systems results in a more – or less – safe, quality product."

On the economics of production, another symposium paper author, Dr. Daniel Summer of the Dept. of Agricultural and Resource Economics at U.C. Davis, noted: "The state-by-state approach to regulations is likely to have no effect on how hens are treated and will affect only where they are housed. A national approach can affect hen treatment, if international trade is limited, but in that case egg prices will rise substantially."

Dr. Mench: "One of the great things about this project has been that we are able to bring together natural and social scientists to consider these important issues. We hope that this work will be a helpful guide to a wide range of researchers and animal agriculture industries on sustainability issues going forward, and that it will contribute to better and more informed public discussions in this area."

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