Researchers compare various hen housing systems
University study aims to gather information, inform debate
By TIM HEARDEN
DAVIS, Calif. -- A university study of laying-hen housing will seek to determine which system is best economically, for the environment and for animal welfare.
The study by scientists at the University of California-Davis and Michigan State University will examine conventional and so-called "colony" cage systems as well as cage-free operations.
The research, which will be done in commercial-scale buildings and will include a look at impacts on worker safety and food safety, will help consumers consider "what kind of eggs to buy," said Joy Mench, an animal science professor at UC-Davis.
"This is really kind of initiated by the retailers who are interested in figuring out where they want their egg supply to come from in the future," said Mench, director of the university's Center for Animal Welfare. "They want to make science-based decisions by getting this information and comparing systems."
The study is funded through a $6 million grant from the Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply, whose 25 member organizations include five universities, the American Humane Association and McDonald's USA.
Julie DeYoung, a coalition spokeswoman, said the research isn't designed to influence policy but to gather information about different systems.
"We think the research will make for more informed decisions," DeYoung said. "Hopefully any group that's interested in the issue will look at what the research says.
"We would say there isn't the information today to say whether one system is better than the other," she said. "We think the research will provide insight into the strengths and perhaps impacts of all the different systems."
The study, which will be complete in 2014, comes as the Humane Society of the U.S. pushes to put cage-free initiatives on the ballot in Washington and Oregon.
Such efforts have proceeded in various states since California voters passed Proposition 2 in 2008, phasing in new space requirements for egg-laying hens and other farm animals.
The HSUS has sought to ban so-called battery cages, which provide hens with about 77 square inches of floor space.
The organization is "always interested in looking at studies on farm animal welfare," said Paul Shapiro, the HSUS' senior director for farm animal protection. He added numerous other studies have been done on the topic.
While the larger "colony" cages would be better than conventional ones, "cage-free is still better yet," Shapiro told the Capital Press in an e-mail.
He pointed to a 2009 study by the Netherlands Journal of Agricultural Science that rated egg production systems on a scale of 0 to 10 in terms of animal welfare. Battery cages received a 0, colony cages rated at 2.3 and cage-free systems known as "barn" and "aviary" rated at 5.8 and 5.9, respectively.
The egg coalition's DeYoung said that because the new study will be broad in scope, its findings could at least "inform the debate" over production systems.
"Hopefully groups that have a position today will evaluate ... and adjust their position if appropriate," she said. "We're not pre-supposing any findings. We're going to wait and see what the science says.
"This is the first research being done in commercial houses in the U.S. in three different types of housing systems," she said. "We think there's a lot to be learned because of that."
Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply: http://www.sustainableeggcoalition.com/prod/