The Poultry Pandemic

Free range laying hens, happily going about their business. (Eat Drink Better 2011).

Free range laying hens, happily going about their business. (Eat Drink Better 2011).

Archana Gopal- Animal Science

Jill Beiermeister- Science

The average American eats 250 shell eggs per year, according to Discovery Education, which means on average, the U.S. eats more than 76.5 billion eggs. However, would you want your eggs to come from chickens who potentially carry bacteria and diseases? Humans can be affected by many diseases that stem from eggs such as Avian Influenza, various forms of Encephalitis, salmonella and e.coli poisoning. According to the CDC, it’s common for poultry to carry diseases such as salmonella, which lives in the intestine of live poultry after they ingest it from feces of other poultry, or other animals such as rodents. The bacteria is then passed on to the eggs when hens sit on them (FSIS, 2013).

The term “poultry” is defined as “domesticated birds that are maintained from eggs, meat, and by-products”(USDA, 2011). Industrial uses of poultry by-products include pharmaceutical and vaccine research, and cushion and insulation material. However, the main uses of poultry involve meat and egg production. While the welfare and housing conditions of poultry have significant effects on products made by poultry everywhere, for the purposes of this paper, we will be discussing how the welfare and housing systems of laying hens specifically affect hen health and egg production, and therefore affect human consumption. A peer-reviewed summary prepared by the American Veterinary Medical Association claims that laying hen housing systems must provide feed, water, proper light, proper air quality, and sanitation that promotes good health and welfare for the hens. The AVMA also asserts that housing systems should provide for expression of natural behaviors, protect the hens from disease, injury and predation, and promote food safety. Battery cages are small, wire cages that, according to Farm Sanctuary, 95 percent of laying hens currently live in. With battery cages being the primary source of housing in laying hens, expression of natural behavior is nearly impossible, and disease is more likely to develop (Taylor & Hurnik, 1994).

Hen housing systems are components of living that contribute to the overall welfare of the hen. There are many types of housing systems used in the poultry industry, however, Chicken Welfare Impacts Chicken Health which directly ties to Human Health consequences These housing systems include battery cages (which prevent the birds from moving), furnished cages (which prevent normal behaviors for the birds such as wing flapping, nesting, etc.), barns (which causes dust in the air and hurts the hens respiratory systems), cage-free (which means the hen doesn’t have to stay put in the cage, but still has little to no access to the outdoors), and free-range (which is where the hens can go outdoors whenever they please and live their normal lives). For this specific research, we are focusing on battery cages and free-range housing systems. The reason the focus is on battery cages and free-range systems is because battery cages are the most common system used currently, and based off of research and how it affects us as humans, we want to make free-range systems the most common.  Living conditions of the hens also affects products that are obtained from these animals such as eggs. In order to increase laying hen welfare, housing systems should allow hens to participate in natural behaviors such as dust bathing, walking, and foraging (AVMA, 2012). Current egg production relies on battery cages which promote poor health in chickens which in turn can lead to negative health consequences for humans; however, free-range systems promote hen health and have fewer negative human health consequences. In order to combat negative human health consequences, we propose the government provide subsidies to defray the costs of converting from battery cages to free range systems.

Battery cages allow each hen less room than the size of a typical sheet of paper when they are of age to lay eggs. “To get a sense of a hen’s life in a battery cage, imagine spending your entire life in a wire cage the size of your bathtub with four other people” (Friedrich, 2013). Essentially, our bones would start to deteriorate from lack of muscle movement, our feet would be mangled, etc. According to a research article, caged hens have a significant amount of foot lesions (Taylor & Hurnik, 1994). A number of birds have overgrown claws that become stuck in the wires and they either die where they are trapped or end up ripping their skin off in order to escape. “Some birds’ skeletal systems become so weak that their spinal cords deteriorate and they become paralyzed; the animals then die from dehydration in their cages” (Friedrich, 2013). This horrid situation has become so common in the industry that they even came up with a name for it, “cage fatigue”. A battery caged hen cannot walk, they cannot spread their wings which allows them to stretch, they are deprived of sunlight and fresh air, and therefore have induced exhaustion and stress. Caged hens also suffer from missing out on natural behaviors such as dustbathing. Dustbathing consists of the hen rolling around in dirt or sand which allows them to groom themselves from away from parasites. The least we can do for these chickens is to give them the appropriate living space they deserve and let them live their lives as normal as possible instead of stacking tiny wired cages on top of each other. In free-range systems, there is sufficient space for performance of a full repertoire of locomotory and body-maintenance behaviors (Lay et al., 2011). Since we as humans are the ones consuming these products, it should come up as a concern as to what we are putting into our bodies.

Laying hens can easily attract diseases from the environment they are put in based on the air quality alone. The air in [battery cages] is known to be contaminated by various potentially hazardous materials including gases (Huneau-Salaun et al., 2011).  The battery caged hens are “fed a processed diet full of hormones, pesticides, and antibiotics”  according to the Health Ambition. This isn’t what we want going into our bodies because it could easily be related to diseases we as humans can obtain. According to the CDC, “poultry is the number one cause of food poisoning in the United States”. Contaminated eggs produced by infected laying hens are thought to be the main source of human infection with [salmonella] throughout the world (Arnold et al, 2012), You may assume that since eggs are typically cooked, there wouldn’t be any traces of salmonella. However, it actually can survive in eggs that are cooked sunny side up or scrambled. Free range eggs are 98% less likely to carry salmonella (Axe, 2016). While salmonella is a serious life threat, the hens that manage to surpass that can host many other diseases. “Every year in the United States these battery caged hens are fed billions of pounds of antibiotics to counteract the contaminated and stressful living conditions” (The Humane Society of the United States Report: Food Safety and Cage Egg Production.) So it’s clear to say that there really is no comparison with the quality of eggs from free-range laying hens compared to battery caged hens.

For those of you who are farmers, yes it may cost more to be able to switch to free-range housing systems, however, it is actually a benefit to having free-range chickens on your landscape. For free-range systems, farmers end up using mobile chicken pens that can move around. The chickens end up eating the remains of old crops such as lettuce and other greens while fertilizing the soil at the same time. They also like to eat the insects and worms as well. According to the article, “What are the Benefits of Free-Range Chicken?” by Erika Sanders, “This creates a symbiotic relationship between the animals and the land. A few chickens in your backyard can help reduce pests in your garden and provide you with a source of fertilizer”. There is evidence to back up why it is beneficial to switching to free-range, other than just for the people buying the products.

Many consumers do not consider chickens and other farm animals to be sentient beings. In 1990, Chris Evans of Macquerie University used digital audio recording devices to test the chickens’ communication levels under a variety of controlled conditions. This research led to the conclusion that poultry vocalization conveys a very specific message depending on the situation and chickens are able to communicate to each other through these vocalizations (Smith, Zielinski, 2014). This means that chickens are animals that are intelligent enough to have a complex method of communication as we do. If this is the case, subjecting these animals to living conditions in which they are unable to express natural behaviors of communication is harmful. Imagine if humans were placed in conditions where they were unable to communicate. It would certainly have detrimental effects on behavior and mental health.

The potential cost increase of the eggs as well as the change in housing from conventional caging to free range is another argument against using the free range system. It would change current egg prices from $2.01 (U.S. City Average, March 2014, Bureau of Labor Statistics) to $2.51, or $0.50 more, per dozen (Ward, 2014). Basic free range facilities will usually involve open acreage with a form of shelter, fences, feeders, perch bars, and water lines (Stewart, Rudkin, Shini, Bryden, 2006). The cost of uprooting an entire housing system and installing a new one costs between $15 and $32 (Ward, 2014), which must be extremely ineffective for a self sufficient farming business. We propose that large scale companies and local farmers will receive government credits, deductions or subsidies from companies that provide housing materials such as fencing and shed materials. This will promote work for the installation and stimulate the economy by putting cash flow into businesses that normally do not get the revenue, due to the longevity and reusability of battery cages. Farmers would also receive a government issued stipend directly proportional to the amount of goods they produce as a result of increased taxes on certain parts of the US population. The quality of food on the shelves of grocery stores should not only be beneficial for the consumer, but should be available at an affordable price.

By purchasing eggs in a free range housing system as previously stated, the environment and welfare for the individual hens will increase as supposed to in battery cages. This will lead to increased nutritional values, creating eggs with higher vitamin content, and lower saturated fat content. With the ability to raise laying hens in many different methods all for the purpose of being a nutritional food source, it would be inhumane to continue to produce a faulty product that can lead to sickness and potentially even death from disease. With the U.S. eating more than 76.5 billion eggs per year, eggs are one of most commonly eaten food on the market. The raising of hens in a free range system will allow the hens to not only produce eggs that have increased vitamins and less saturated fats. With 95% of hens living in battery cages currently, this is not something that will change overnight, but with help from the cooperation of our elected officials, we can work to decrease the percentage in battery cages, and properly raise this prominent food source in our diets. It is important to remember, that “Eggs are a great source of nutrients and delicious to eat if they’ve been raised properly, as Mother Nature intended. For your own health and the welfare of the hens, don’t settle for battery cage eggs” (The Humane Society of the United States Report: Food Safety and Cage Egg Production.) With the ability to raise such a prominent food source in so many different methods, it is crucial to do so humanely and with the consumer’s health as the number one priority. We propose government intervention to help incorporate these changes that will benefit both the consumer, and the laying hens.



Leave a Reply