A recent press release issued by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and United Egg Producers (UEP) may have caught your eye. The press release heralds a new "historic" agreement on future egg production between HSUS and UEP, an industry body which represents 80% of all U.S. egg producers. A strange union, you might think, for two organizations normally at odds. So what exactly is this agreement about?
In his blog, HSUS president Wayne Pacelle says that the "landmark agreement" will "help millions of hens." HSUS has been calling for cage-free egg production for years, so an agreement to end all caged egg production would represent an enormous advancement in welfare. Sadly for the hens, that isn't the basis of this agreement. In defiance of common sense and all previously expressed opinion, HSUS has achieved nothing more than an agreement to work with UEP towards new legislation which will move hens out of one type of battery cage into a another slightly larger cage. An historic welfare advancement? I think not.
HSUS claims this cage isn't the same as the standard battery cage; it's an "enriched" cage. So what exactly is an enriched cage and what welfare benefits does it offer the hens? HSUS claims that the enriched cages will provide environmental enrichments so birds can engage in important natural behaviors, such as perching, using nest boxes, and having scratching areas. But can a bird that is still behaviorally very much like its ancestor, the jungle fowl, really express natural behavior in a cage?
The answer is a definitive "No." The word "enrichment" has positive connotations that quite frankly are not supported by science. In a previous blog I state that these cages are better described as "furnished" rather than "enriched." This may seem like wordplay, but the point is that while adding a perch or a nest area to a cage can be factually described as furnishing it, it's a matter of scientific opinion as to whether or not it actually enriches the confinement of the bird. For example, the perches provided in furnished cages are likely to be less than 3 inches off the floor, and the wire top of the cage is just 15 inches above that. This does not meet the hen's behavioral need to be able to get up on a perch where she feels safe. Research shows that hens will perceive the perch in a furnished cage simply as part of the floor and not as a perch (Tauson, 1984).
Let's look at another supposed benefit of a furnished cage: the provision of a nest area. It's well established that hens place a high value on a secluded nest site. Research shows that hens will move weighted doors and squeeze through gaps to get to what they consider a suitable site. Yet scientists have found that hens in furnished cages do not use the nest area, suggesting that these nest areas are not always perceived as satisfactory for the hens and reiterating the furnished-versus-enriched argument. The provision of a nest site is not the point: the hens must find it acceptable or they won't see it as enrichment.
The UEP press release says that as part of its agreement with HSUS the two groups will jointly ask Congress for federal legislation which would require egg producers to increase space per bird in a "tiered phase in," with the amount of space birds are given increasing, in intervals, over the next 15-18 years. Currently the majority of birds are each provided 67 square inches of space. The proposed phase-in would culminate with hens eventually being provided with 124-144 square inches of space.
This new proposal blatantly ignores the most important question: is 144 square inches per bird really sufficient space? One might assume that if a hen is moved from 68 square inches to 144 square inches she will feel like she's gained something. But unfortunately that's not how it works: A hen put in a cage that allows her 144 square inches doesn't know how lucky she is to have more than 68 square inches room. She simply finds that she hasn't got enough room to move. Her individual welfare is not improved.
Dawkins and Hardie (1989) looked at the average space required by a hen to carry out basic needs and found that a bird requires an average space of 198 square inches to turn, stretching wings requires 138 square inches, and flapping wings requires 290 square inches. The proposed stocking rates in these new enriched cages don't even come close to allowing the required space for these basic needs. Of course, each cage holds more than one hen and will be greater than 144 square inches in total, so you could argue that within the cage there are 290 square inches for a particular hen to flap her wings at any given time. However, she'd have to count on the cooperation of all the other hens to move out of her way and not want to stretch their own wings at the same time as her. Think of yourself on a subway train: in theory you have enough room to move, but only if you don't take into account the seats, the handrails -- and of course your fellow travelers. An empty train lets you sit down, stand up, stretch and move, but in a full train all you can do is stand in the few square inches left. Try doing a jumping jack in a full train and you'll have an idea of the fallacy of this proposed enrichment.
And we're not even considering the need of the bird to run, fly and forage. Remember also that this agreement does nothing to address other important welfare issues, such as routine removal of part of the birds' beaks to prevent them from pecking each other - a common stress response due to the confined conditions.
Of course this agreement between HSUS and UEP will mean very little if the proposed legislation is not actually passed, or becomes watered down during its journey through Congress. Call me a cynic but to assume that Big Ag won't attempt to influence the legislative outcome is more than a little naive. In light of this new found concern for animal welfare, I am intrigued to know what plans UEP now has to amend its own standards. I will watch with interest to see what - if any - changes are made.
Perhaps the most perplexing aspect of this recent agreement is that just over a year ago HSUS carried out a review of the welfare problems associated with enriched cages, which concluded that enriched cages provide "an unacceptably limited amount of space per bird." Having reviewed the science I am at a loss as to what changes have occurred in the last year to make these previously unacceptable enriched cages suddenly so acceptable to HSUS. And while we can debate whether there is any welfare benefit to what was agreed, it is frankly unacceptable for Wayne Pacelle and HSUS to now present enriched caged systems as "humane."
The fact is that this new agreement between HSUS and UEP appears to offer little in terms of animal welfare, yet much in terms of positive PR. In light of these concerns, perhaps the two parties involved would agree to publicize the full terms of the agreement to allow an honest and open debate on their proposals.
Dawkins, M. S. and Hardie, S. (1989) Space needs of laying hens. British Poultry Science, 30: 413-416.
Tauson, R. (1984) Effect of a perch in conventional cages for laying hens. Acta Agriculturae Scandinavica, 74: 193-209.