The ban on conventional layer cages within the EU is imminent; but just how prepared are the countries within the EU? How will their new production systems affect the hens and the eggs they lay? And what are the commercial costs and implications of these new systems?
At the recent IEC Conference in Canada, egg industry experts Mark Williams, Thea Fiks-van Niekerk, Peter van Horne, Gert Stuke and Andrew Joret, provided delegates with a unique opportunity to learn about the latest EU developments, as they each shared their industry insights and research with members of the IEC.
What is the current situation regarding cages within the EU?
In 2 years time, conventional cages will be banned throughout Europe. As of January 1, 2012, eggs produced within the EU will only be permitted by making use of: enriched, free-range, barn, or organic methods.
According to the latest figures presented by Mark Williams, in Europe in 2008, 278 mln hens were in cage systems, and only 20 mln, just 7% of these, were in enriched colonies. He believes that the industry faces a huge challenge to move all those hens across in the time remaining.
What progress is being made by EU member states?
Germany is operating ahead of the EU; all laying hens in the country must be out of conventional cages by the end of 2009. Gert Stuke explained to IEC members attending the IEC Conference that 6 research farms were set up in Germany to study the animal, ethical and human aspects of using enriched colony systems. The research farms studied all aspects of animal health and hygiene, as well as the ethical implications such as animal protection, human food safety, and risk assessment issues.
Results showed that the German Kleingruppenhaltung colony system is highly effective for achieving the highest levels of animal health, animal welfare and food safety. Laying performance is comparable with conventional cages; mortality is lower than in alternative laying systems; there is no need for beak shortening; the system allows good observation of the hens; the stability of the hens’ legs and bones is comparable to other laying systems; and, the Kleingruppenhaltung system enables the highest levels of hygiene to be met.
- The Netherlands
As a major supplier to the German market, Dutch egg producers are responding to German market trends and demands, and have decided to adopt Germany’s Kleingruppenhaltung system.
In Austria, conventional cages were prohibited at the end of 2008, and enriched colonies will also be banned by 2020.
In1989, Sweden made the decision to ban conventional cages. Egg farmers were originally given a time frame of 10 years to phase out the conventional cages, but this was later extended, and conventional cages ceased to be used in Sweden by the end of 2002. Enriched colony systems are permitted in Sweden.
Belgium will comply with the EU Directive to ban conventional cages by the beginning of 2012. There is also a proposal to ban enriched colonies in Belgium by the end of 2024. However, according to Mark Williams, this complete cage ban is unlikely to come into force until 2040.
Studying new versus old system
As the EU ban on conventional cages draws closer, most European countries are moving towards enriched colony systems, at least in the short- to mid-term. Numerous research projects have been carried out throughout Europe, studying the commercial implications of adopting these systems.
Thea Fiks-van Niekerk is currently leading a research project studying the housing and welfare of laying hens. A recent study, the Laywel Project, compared the behaviour of birds in conventional cages with that of birds in enriched colonies. The aim of the study was to determine whether the birds use the additional features found in enriched colonies, i.e. the perch, nest box and litter area. The study also compared the production processes of these two cage systems, including egg quality, feed intake and the health and hygiene of the birds.
Research results showed that the hens do use the facilities provided in enriched colonies; 95-99% of eggs were laid in the nest boxes, and 40-50% of the hens used the perches during the day time, and at night time almost all them, 80-90% used the perch.
Having studied the production results from both conventional cages, and enriched colonies, Fiks-van Niekerk recommends that enriched systems incorporate an egg saver and time clock, which will periodically move the egg belt, helping to reduce grouping and prevent the eggs on the belt knocking into each other and cracking.
The quality of eggs laid in enriched colonies is comparable to those laid in conventional cages - 93.29% of eggs laid in conventional cages were 1st grade, compared to 92.27% in enriched colonies.
When the feed intake of birds in conventional cages was compared to the feed intake of birds in enriched colonies, surprisingly, the results showed that the hens in the colonies actually consumed slightly less. It was expected that due to having more movement and using more energy, feed intake would be higher for the enriched hens. Fiks-van Niekerk says that perhaps this lower result is due to the fact that the birds in the enriched colony can sit quietly on the perch, therefore moving less than birds in a conventional system.
Are the systems comparable?
The studies comparing the two cage systems conclude that hens do use the facilities made available to them in the enriched colonies, while egg production, bird health and egg hygiene are very similar for hens in conventional cages and enriched colony systems.
Having established that most European countries will adopt enriched colonies, Peter van Horne addressed the economic impact of the system.
Enriched colonies require slightly higher labour input, while the density of hens will decrease, resulting in an additional cost per hen. In addition to this, there is the capital investment required to install the systems.
These economic factors result in an 8-10% increase in production costs for enriched colonies. Despite the extra investment required, eggs produced in enriched colony systems do not attract premium prices. Van Horne: “At this moment there is no mark-up bonus in the market in Europe.” Free-range eggs and organic eggs have the benefit of generating higher market prices, but consumers regard eggs laid in enriched colonies as still being caged eggs, so are not prepared to pay a premium. Therefore, the enriched colonies incur additional costs, without generating additional revenue.
Experts attending the conference expressed confidence that enriched colonies will comply with animal welfare guidelines, including those in California, while maintaining an efficient production system.
Andrew Joret stressed that the body of scientific evidence shows that enriched colonies provide good production results, and although it is still difficult to actively promote them to consumers, they are a lot easier to defend than conventional cages.
However, in the eyes of the consumer, as Andrew Joret explained, “a cage is still a cage”. Within the UK, two of the country’s 4 leading supermarkets have declared that they will sell eggs farmed from enriched cages, one will not and the remaining one is currently undecided.