Cage-free sounds good, but what does it really mean for chickens?

BrownChicken_inGrass_blogA groundbreaking ballot measure was recently passed by Massachusetts voters and will mandate that all pork, veal, and eggs farmed and sold in Massachusetts come from pigs, calves, and laying hens not confined to ultra-tight quarters.

While voters in other states have banned certain farming practices through referenda, no ballot measure has ever outlawed the sale of products from animals raised in a particular way — something that has the potential to affect farms around the country, and grocery stores within the state.

Known as the animal welfare initiative, the law, which will not schedule to take effect until 2022, is already raising concerns as some ponder if “cage-free” actually means a better life for animals like chickens. A philosophy professor who works on food issues recently delved into the topic and said he believes questions of animal welfare are more complicated than they seem at first glance.

As explained in the article, the philosophical question of whether animals deserve any kind of moral consideration has been debated at least since the ancient Greeks. Egg production has also been a key target of animal welfare initiatives because at one time layers were so crowded they had to stand on top of one another in the wire cages used by the modern egg industry.

While we can’t be sure these stocking densities have been entirely eliminated, the vast majority of table eggs today come from chickens that have at least enough space to stand on the floor of their cage, the article explains. Additionally and perhaps more importantly than these increased space allotments is the introduction of amenities that clearly matter to chickens: nest boxes, scratch pads and perches. These enhancements allow the birds to engage in the perching, dust-bathing, nesting and foraging behaviors they are highly motivated to perform.

Then, by 2010, a consensus emerged among producers and some activists for moving to much larger cages that provided opportunities for most of chickens’ natural behaviors — the so-called enriched or colony cage. From the producer perspective, enriched cages represented the best compromise between slightly higher costs and improved welfare for hens. But, recent pledges to source eggs from cage-free facilities have virtually taken the opportunity for enriched cages off the table.

This is where the moral uncertainty begins.

As stated in the article, cage-free and free-range systems clearly do a better job of allowing hens to express behaviors that are similar to those of wild jungle fowl. They can move around, and they have better opportunities for scratching, dust bathing and foraging. However, in comparison to enriched cages, hens in cage-free and free-range facilities suffer injuries simply because they move around more. The article also explains that access to the outdoors often means that predators also have access to hens, and some are inevitably taken by hawks, foxes or the like.

Further complicating the “freedom” of cage-free and free-range enclosures, hens will peck one another in an effort to establish a dominance order. In small groups (the 40 to 60 birds that would be found in the enriched-cage system), this behavior generally recedes. But in flocks of 100,000 or more chickens, the least dominant birds can be subjected to so much pecking from other hens that their welfare is clearly worse than it would be in an enriched cage. Welfare scientists tend to favor aviaries (cage-free) over floor systems (free-range) because they allow better perching and thus give less dominant birds better places to hide.

It is possible to house chickens in groups of 40 to 60 birds where pecking orders become stable quickly, but the roughly 6′ by 12′ enclosures for these groups look suspiciously like a cage to most people. And this may no longer be a viable option as ballot initiatives like the one in Massachusetts passed with overwhelming support. Furthermore, grocery stores and many chain restaurants are now also pledging to abandon suppliers who utilize cages over the next five to 10 years.

So do chickens benefit from more space, and should we turn them out of their cages? If we are trying to help them live a more natural kind of existence, then one could argue yes. If we are interested in limiting the injuries they suffer from being pecked by other birds, as well as from getting hunted and killed by hawks, dogs and other predators, then maybe not.

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