“Everyone agrees,” declared Paul Shapiro of the Humane Society of the United States this morning, that “animals should be treated humanely.” He’s right. Whether it’s cows and pigs raised for food or the homeless pets that receive a tiny sliver of HSUS’s gigantic budget every year, no one wants animals to be treated inhumanely. Especially farmers. But as Penn State agricultural economist Dr. David Blandford pointed out just moments before, there are plenty of unanswered questions about how to ensure that farm animals are treated as compassionately as possible. And somehow, animal rights activists like Shapiro (who would never dream of raising animals for food) claim to hold all the answers.
This morning at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, the nonprofit Farm Foundation held a forum on animal welfare in production agriculture. Given the recent battle over California’s "Proposition 2," much of the discussion focused on the welfare of egg-laying hens. Two of the five panelists were experts in exactly that: egg farmer Bob Krouse, and American Humane Association egg-labeling program director Tim Amlaw.
One of the most contested issues during the Prop. 2 campaign was whether “free range” or “cage free” hens are healthier than birds raised in so-called “battery” cages. Shapiro and other activists insist that they are. But the evidence – including a new survey of egg farmers in New Zealand – tells a very different story.
Anecdotal evidence and academic research have shown that caged hens are subject to lower mortality rates than cage-free birds. (You read that right: Uncaging hens is a quick way to ensure that more of them die prematurely.) In 2005 the EU-sponsored LayWel project, one of the largest studies on animal welfare standards in egg production, found that conventionally caged hens were at much lower risk of mortality due to feather pecking and/or cannibalism.
The egg experts on today’s panel agreed. Krouse, who produces both kinds of eggs, said that mortality rates among cage-free flocks range from more than twice as high (4 percent mortality vs. 9 percent) up to one thousand percent higher (4 percent vs. 40 percent). Amlaw chimed in with his own observations from Sweden, where the cage-free conversion has been taking place for years. “Flock after flock” engaged in aggressive, deadly feather-pecking behaviors.
All of this adds up to support Dr. Blandford’s opinion that what animal welfare advocates should be demanding is more research. But Shapiro, representing HSUS, is more interested in securing rights for chickens than in ensuring their welfare — no matter how much research is conducted or what the results show.
Until activist claims (like HSUS’s) about the superiority of cage-free farms are backed up by science, we stand by our suspicion about mandates like Prop. 2: They’re more about putting so-called chicken oppressors out of business than actually helping hens.
As one New Zealand farmer noted, switching to free-range-only would affect the country’s egg production: “There wouldn’t be enough.”  Egg-xactly.