Under the microscope of the general public, animal agriculture has often been a target for consumer scrutiny and legislative ‘fixes’. Now, a three-year study is helping to lay to rest questions surrounding one facet of animal agriculture — egg production.
The study, which evaluated three egg production systems in terms of food affordability, egg quality, animal welfare and worker health, was commissioned by a coalition of members, including animal welfare scientists, universities, associations, egg suppliers, restaurants and other food companies.
The research intended to identify the trade-offs and risk factors among housing systems, which included conventional cage, enriched colony and cage-free aviary systems, often called “free-range.” While the study had no intention to identify a “best” or “worst” system, study results did give an affirmative nod to one system in particular: conventional cage production.
In the study, egg quality rated the same across all three housing types. However, the results were different when it came to worker health, food affordability and animal welfare.
In fact, the study showed that one egg production system in particular, free-range, led to high death rates in chickens, with more chickens showing breast bone damage, likely from failed flight landings — information that runs contradictory to what most animals rights groups and consumers believe.
The free-range system also recorded the poorest air quality of all systems reviewed, meaning dust masks for workers, and increased labor. Finally, the research showed that eggs in the free-range system cost 36 percent more to produce than the conventional production costs.
What does all of this mean? According to Illinois Farm Bureau Livestock Program Director Jim Fraley, it means that farmers who deal with these animals every day — not those legislators or animal rights activists on the outside — really do know what’s best for their animals.
“Often we humans think we know what is best for an animal,” Fraley said. “There has been a movement to raise hens in a free-range environment, or to give them more room. Interestingly enough, the system in this study with the highest mortality rate was the aviary system, or the free-range system.”