A recent press release from the American Humane Association (AHA) on a “historic piece of legislation that will significantly improve animal welfare in commercial egg-laying chicken operations” has clearly captured the attention of hacks looking for a quick and easy story.
The AHA news release, which has now appeared ad verbatim across several news sites, trumpets the “ground-breaking vote” by the Washington state House of Representatives to introduce new legislation which will bring about “dramatic” animal welfare improvements. The AHA news release claims that this new legislation will “phase out the use of battery cage housing for egg-laying hens and instead mandate use of an approved American Humane Association housing system, requiring more space and the use of what is known as the enriched colony model.” Sounds like a giant step forward for chicken welfare and good news for ethical consumers, right? Wrong. While the legislation may phase out the use of standard battery cages for egg laying hens in the state of Washington, it does not ban cages—and you’d be sadly mistaken if you thought that the birds in these systems will now run free in a high-welfare farming system. The reality is that AHA’s “enriched colony model” actually embraces the use of enriched cages. No amount of clever wording or media spin will change the fact that an enriched cage is still a cage.
The AHA claims that their enriched colony model will allow hens “to exhibit natural behaviors,” and that “extensive research” shows that their chicken operations will “most certainly significantly improve animal welfare.” While I might almost stomach the argument that an enriched battery cage may offer slightly better welfare opportunities than a standard battery cage, I can state categorically that chickens in the AHA’s enriched systems won’t be able to exhibit most of their key natural behaviors. They won’t have space to run, stretch, flap their wings, and fly; they won’t have somewhere to dust bathe; and they won’t have access to pastured areas to roam and forage in. I also know that AHA has significantly overestimated and overstated the ability of these enriched cages to provide adequate nesting and perching for the birds – both of which are vital for meeting a chicken’s behavioral needs.
Back in June when the AHA first announced their intention to permit the use of so-called enriched battery cages for laying hens as an option for “humane housing,” I must admit that I was astonished. So I examined the available scientific research to see if there was any rationale for the “Humane” claims being made. My initial doubts were confirmed time and again.
The bulk of the research on enriched battery cages has taken place in Europe. This is because standard battery cages will be prohibited across the European Union (EU) starting in 2012. To be prepared the EU funded the LayWel project to examine the welfare implications of changes in production systems research and to help facilitate the industry change from standard battery cages to other systems – and specifically enriched cages. European legislation lays down specific rules that must be met by enriched cages. It is still not clear whether AHA will require cages to meet the EU legislative requirements or if they will draw up their own standards, but the EU legislation requires at least 116 sq. inches of total space per hen.
The AHA claims that chickens in their enriched colony model have space to “turn around, spread their wings and lie down.” Let’s take the EU space per hen of 116 sq. inches per bird in a furnished cage. We’re talking about a space that is about the same size as a sheet of legal paper. Is this really enough? Sure, the bird can stand in this space and she can probably lie down. But can she really spread her wings and turn round with ease? How much space does this take? Scientists have established that a chicken needs about 198 sq. inches to turn around; about 138 sq. inches to stretch her wings, and 290 sq. inches to flap her wings. These figures are all far greater than the space provided per bird in a furnished cage.
One of the AHA’s key welfare claims is that their enriched colony systems provide a nest area for the birds. It’s well established that hens place a high value on a secluded nest site and research has shown that hens will move weighted doors and squeeze through gaps to get to what they consider a suitable site. Yet the reduced space in cages in general – and the small area set aside for nesting in furnished cages in particular – is a real problem. Hens naturally lay at the same time each day, so there could be a line of 10 or more hens waiting to get into the single nest area. While the LayWel project research showed a higher use of the nest area in furnished cages it didn't show every bird was able to nest, leaving some hens frustrated. However, the simple provision of a nest is not the point. The hens must find it acceptable and available or they will not lay eggs in it. This is not an issue for non-cage systems which provide far more space and more nest boxes.
In natural conditions, hens spend 50 to 90 percent of their waking time foraging for insects and other food, making up to 15,000 pecks a day. So imagine the frustration of being deprived of doing what could take up to 90 percent of your day? That natural drive and energy must be directed somewhere and, sadly, the only option is to peck at the other hens you are trapped with. Furnished cages fail to meet the need for foraging behavior.
Dustbathing is another key natural behavior that the furnished cage is supposed to facilitate. Real dustbathing involves the hens lying down and throwing litter or other loose material over the feathers of their backs and wings, rubbing it in, and then shaking it out. When hens do not have a suitable area and litter to properly dustbathe, they still go through the motions. This is known as “sham dustbathing” and research suggests that it does not properly satisfy the motivation of hens to dustbathe. In furnished cages, sham dustbathing on the wire cage floor takes place far more frequently than in the littered area. At first scientists thought that competition for space was a contributing factor, but now they think that the area, the type of litter provided, and the depth of litter in furnished cages just does not meet the hens’ requirements, and so they treat all areas as equal when dustbathing. Just like the nest box, it’s not just providing a designated dustbathing area that is important; it’s whether the hens see it as acceptable. In non-cage systems where there is appropriate litter on the floor and/or access to outdoor areas there is no sham dustbathing.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the AHA’s so-called enriched cages provide very few potential benefits compared to standard cages, and in no way compare with the kind of high-welfare pasture based systems supported by Animal Welfare Approved. Real welfare is based on the real needs of an animal being met not on Big Ag's interpretation of the birds’ needs driven by greed. This is why European welfare groups such as Compassion in World Farming are calling for a ban on enriched cage systems, and Germany plans to ban all cage systems – including enriched cages – by 2012. While almost anything is better than a standard barren battery cage, please don’t be fooled into thinking that the AHA’s enriched colony model is anything other than an inhumane confinement system.
This article is based on a previous Animal Welfare Approved article, written in July 2010, which includes full scientific references.