Cage-free egg production: Trends and challenges
The European Commission has announced that by the end of 2023, a legislative proposal will be presented to phase out and prohibit the use of cages for several farm animals. Cage-free egg production systems can be broken into three categories, each with its own set of standards: organic, free-range and barn.
The evolution of housing systems for egg production
Since their domestication, chickens have traditionally been kept in floor systems. Conventional cages eventually became the standard housing system as egg production advanced. These cages brought several benefits to egg producers, such as:
- Efficient use of available area
- Fully automated process
- Easier management
- Superior hygiene
- Lower incidence of infectious diseases
- Lower feed consumption
- Lower cost of production
Cages began to be criticised for restricting bird movement and the expression of certain behavioural patterns of laying hens. Furnished cages were an attempt to combine the best of two worlds: The advantages of conventional cages in terms of hygiene and efficiency of production and increasing hens’ behavioural expression, along with improving the bird’s physical condition.
Ongoing pressure on the use of furnished cages
In its most recent Egg Track Report, issued in 2020, Compassion in World Farming revealed that dozens of major egg producers, retailers, food service companies and hotel chains, including corporations with a worldwide presence, have committed to banning cage eggs from their supply chains, opting instead for free-range, barn or organic eggs. Some of these companies have already fully transitioned to cage-free eggs, while most others plan to do so by 2025.
In 2008, 68% of hens in the EU were housed in cages. In 2020, this dropped to 48%. Likewise, in 2009, cage-free flocks yielded only 5% of US eggs. They now account for 29% of all eggs produced, and it is estimated that by 2026, their share will increase to about two-thirds of the market.
The economic impact of layer hen welfare requirements
Welfare regulations around laying hens are costly. The increased space allowance enforced in 2003 (from 450 cm2 to 550 cm2 per hen) raised the cost of egg production by about 3.4%, whereas 2012’s ban of conventional cages (with an increase to 750 cm2 per hen) increased the cost by an additional 6.8%. Furthermore, the cost of egg production in the barn/aviary in the EU is 23% greater than pre-2012 cage production (conventional cages, 550 cm2 per hen). These figures are comparable to those of the USA, where the cost of producing an egg in furnished cages (753 cm2 per hen) is 13% higher than in conventional cages (516 cm2 per hen), and the cost of egg production in an aviary is 36% greater than in conventional cages.
Challenges associated with cage-free eggs
On average, the hen mortality rate is greater in cage-free eggs, especially in free-range, when compared to furnished cages. It has been noted that these set-ups have a higher prevalence of:
- Bacterial infections
- Internal parasites
- Avian influenza and Newcastle disease
- Wet litter — footpad dermatitis and bumblefoot
- Keel bone fractures
- Floor eggs
Although well-managed cage-free flocks can achieve good performance, their average productivity may be lower. The increased bird movement and energy expenditure can lead to increased feed intake and feed conversion ratio.
Cages have been the dominant egg production system for decades. However, concerns about bird welfare are driving the ban on cage eggs. However, this change to cage-free egg production systems is associated with some significant economic, financial, and technical challenges.