Flying the coop? - Page 3

Proposal to ban cages in chicken farms pits efficiency against humane treatment

To prevent mismanagement, United Egg Producers, a lobbying group that represents 85 percent of the country's egg farms, decided to develop standards for caged production in 1999. They sought out UC Davis poultry scientist Joy Mench to lead a team of scientists in creating these welfare guidelines.

By analyzing the disease, injury, mortality, and productivity rates of birds kept in different systems and spaces, the group developed criteria that the industry subsequently adopted. Among these standards is the 67-square-inch minimum space requirement for each hen. These measures mostly focus on disease and mortality control as well as egg-laying productivity, but have less concern for behavioral welfare.

Although caged birds in modern systems sometimes have lower disease rates than cage-free birds, Shields says the potential for humane treatment in cage-free systems is much higher. Most scientists agree that hens in battery cages cannot engage in many of their natural behaviors, including wing-flapping, nest-building, perching, dust-bathing, scratching, and preening. And although disease control in cage-free systems is more difficult, Shields says, cage-free flocks can be maintained healthfully and successfully.

But Riebli has had problems with one of his younger cage-free flocks at Sunrise Farms. They became startled and piled on top of each other earlier this month, he says, suffocating 20 percent of the birds.

But Shields says this is highly unusual, and points toward newer, aviary-style cage-free systems as a solution for producers who encounter the problem. These methods divide the birds into smaller flocks within the same building, and rely on multiple levels to allow birds to perch and nest. Another potential issue, she says, is the lack of a perfectly-bred hen for cage-free production. After years of breeding hens to produce well in battery cages, breeders only recently have begun breeding for traits that benefit cage-free production. "The bird needs to be suited to the environment, and the environment also needs to be more suited to the birds," she says.

An aviary system costs more to set up than an empty cage-free building, but Shields dismisses these costs. "If we keep racing to the bottom in the name of cheap food, the eventual cost is going to be put on the animals," Shields says. "At some point we have to balance economic costs with moral and ethical considerations."

Over the past two-and-a-half years, a group of 15 politicians, scientists, farmers, and ranchers banded together to do just that. The Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production released a report last month detailing many troubling issues with the country's farm animal production. The group specifies that the California ballot measure is a great place to start.

More than 100 cows graze Bill Niman's 1,000-acre Marin County ranch, but only a couple have ever successfully navigated down the cliffs from the pastures to the beaches. Niman's home is less than a mile inland, and on clear days he can see across the bay to San Francisco and even Daly City. He founded Niman Ranch on this property in the early 1970s and quickly caused a stir by deciding not to feed antibiotics and hormones to his cows. At first his fellow ranchers didn't take him seriously, but now nearly all beef producers feed their cattle hormone-free food. More than 30 years later, Niman is determined to use the credibility he has earned to help all farm animals gain better treatment.

Last year, at 63, he gave up his seat on Niman Ranch's board of directors, effectively ending his involvement with the company he once ran. Now he volunteers with the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production.

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