Battery cages were developed in the 1930s and their widespread use started in the 1950s. Over the years, this housing system for laying hens has been increasingly criticised in northern Europe for animal welfare reasons. Public concern led to an adjustment of European legislation to favour production systems that allowed hens to express their natural behaviour.
Starting in 2012, the conventional cage has been banned and only enriched cages with a minimum space of 750 cm2 per laying hen or alternative housing systems such as a barn, free-range and organic systems are allowed in the European Union.
In the Netherlands, a further ban on enriched cages starts in 2021. Decisions on changing a production system should be based on a sustainability assessment that incorporates social, environmental and economic dimensions. As sustainability is a broad issue, indicators are usually used for quantification. In this study, the sustainability of enriched cages, barn, free-range and organic egg production systems following a predefined protocol was assessed. Indicators were selected within the social, environmental and economic dimensions, after which parameter values and sustainability limits were set for the core indicators in order to quantify sustainability.
Using equal weights for the indicators showed that, in the Dutch situation, enriched cage egg production was most sustainable, achieving the highest score on the environmental dimension, whereas free-range egg production gave the highest score on the social dimension (covering food safety, animal welfare and human welfare). In the economic dimension, both enriched cage egg and organic egg production had the highest sustainability score. When weights were attributed according to stakeholder outputs, individual differences were seen, but the overall scores were comparable to the sustainability scores based on equal weights.
Also read: France’s alternative eggs