United Poultry Concerns October 21, 2005

Ruth Harrison Speaks Up for "Laying" Hens – "these much abused birds"

On November 30, 1991, Ruth Harrison, who wrote Animal Machines – "the book which first alerted the public to the horrors of factory farming back in 1964," published "The myth of the barn egg" in New Scientist, pp. 40-43. In it, Harrison criticized the British government’s Farm Animal Welfare Council’s weak proposals for improving the treatment of hens used for commercial egg production. Deploring the consequences of a too-compromising reformist philosophy, Harrison set forth key living conditions that hens need in order to have good welfare ("good" within the framework of a commercial mass-production system). This article, published over a decade ago, is as timely and important now as it was then in helping to clarify the relationship of hens with one another and in relation to the totality of the environment in which they are placed.


The myth of the barn egg

New proposals from the government’s watch dog on the welfare of farm animals will do little to improve the wellbeing of Britain’s most beleagured bird, the laying hen.

By Ruth Harrison

THE LATEST report from the government’s farm Animal Welfare Council, The Welfare of Laying Hens in Colony Housing Systems, comes at a crucial time. The European Commission is now poised to set new standards for the housing of laying hens kept in "colonies" rather than battery cages ["colonies" are non-cage indoor floor housing systems that include litter and may also include perches and 2 or 3 tiers], and tougher regulations could improve the welfare of millions of birds across Europe. As the report was being written, members of the FAWC disagreed over fundamental issues. The majority felt that the report should recommend only those improvements that would require no major changes by producers. As one of the minority who dissented from this approach, I describe here the key points of disagreement, and the background to the debate.

Battery cages were introduced into Britain on a commercial scale after the derationing of feeding stuffs in 1953. At first one bird was put into a cage, measuring 30 centimetres [12 inches] wide. But stocking densities increased steadily over the years, and today five birds are put into each 50-centimetre-wide cage – giving each bird just 432 square centimetres [about 65 square inches]. Cages are ranked three, four, five or even six tiers high, in long buildings, often over a deep pit into which the birds’ droppings fall. So restricted have conditions for the hen become that a report published by the FAWC in 1986 commented:

"We do not approve of the cage systems in their present commercial form on welfare grounds . . . the extreme confinement denies or seriously restricts the birds’ freedom to express patterns of behaviour. The birds may be subject to chronic discomfort."

In 1986 the European Commission’s Battery Hens Directive (EC 86/113) set minimum standards for battery cages, among which was a minimum stocking rate of 450 square centimetres [70 square inches] per bird, to come into force in 1988 for new cages and 1995 for existing cages. Work on revising the directive started in 1989 and is supposed to be completed in 1992. This directive is expected to give a marginal increase in the space allowance for the birds, once more phased in over many years. But this time the directive may add an appendix setting standards for hens in alternative systems – in so-called "free range" and "barn" housing – and here the recommendations of the FAWC may be particularly influential.

A small percentage of producers have never used cages, but public demand for "free-range" eggs led to a gradual increase in the number. In 1990, the famous comment by Edwina Currie, then health minister, that most egg production was infected with salmonella, brought pictures of hens in battery cages onto television screens night after night for weeks on end and brought home to the public the degree of confinement and discomfort experienced by the birds. Demand for "free-range" eggs escalated and has now reached over 15 per cent of the market. Producers of "barn" eggs are hoping to capture some of the "free-range" egg market.

The public perception is that "free-range" eggs come from hens which actually spend their days ranging freely over pasture, and that "barn" eggs come from hens in light, spacious and strawed barns in which the birds can move around freely as the wish. Is this view accurate? Not exactly! Because in 1985 the Commission’s marketing division drew up criteria for labelling eggs on sale without consulting husbandry experts. The resulting criteria simply accommodate the poor husbandry practices of the most extreme systems in the European Community. Retailers then took these criteria as their basic husbandry standards for marketing "free-range" and "barn" eggs.

The "barn" eggs can be from a dimly lit, windowless building, with no litter in which the hens could scratch or have dustbaths, and with each bird allocated only 400 square centimeters [about 60 square inches]. The "free-range" eggs could come from similar buildings, albeit with "continuous daytime access to open-air runs." In practice, this often means a continuation of the practice of providing only one pop-hole for hundreds of hens, so that few ever go outside or probably even realise that such access exists.

Many of the existing alternatives are unsatisfactory for three reasons. Egg producers attempt to get the same profit from the building as they did from cages, to cram as many birds into a building as there had been when the birds were in cages, and to use the body heat of the birds to keep the ambient temperature high enough to maintain litter and air quality. (Cold damp conditions cause the litter to compact, promoting disease.)

Government-funded research has also concentrated on maintaining profits. Use has been made of vertical space within the house, and elaborate designs of tiers and perches over either a slatted, wire or strawed floor have been tried out in ever more complex combinations. Stocking densities are now based on complicated tables of birds per square metre against temperature and ventilation rates. More than ever the poultry farmer has also to be a technician and mathematician.

Any changes imposed on an industry take time to achieve. Ministers are quick to use the FAWC as a shield in the House of Commons against awkward questions. But they are far less quick to respond to the council’s recommendations for change, however urgent the FAWC considers such change to be. This is not entirely the ministers’ fault, since any change, be it to welfare codes or to legislation, is a relatively lengthy procedure. The recommendations have to be sent out for consultation to interested parties, many of whom have in turn to consult their branches. Replies then have to be sifted and analysed before ministers decide on their own response, upon which a second consultation is made. Agreed changes then have to be drafted and sent to ministry lawyers, who confer with parliamentary lawyers. Then they come back to the department to see if the drafting has achieved what was intended. If the subject is controversial the department may feel it wise to go out for consultation again on the draft laws and will in any case probably go back to the lawyers for further change.

Finally, both changes to codes and to legislation have to go for approval by both houses of Parliament, for which time has to be found in otherwise full parliamentary programmes. It was 1991 before some of the legislation asked for in the FAWC Slaughter Report of 1984 was introduced. The delay can be prolonged when primary legislation has to be introduced or changed and session after session of parliamentary time goes by without time being found for the changes – especially if measures do not rank high on the Cabinet’s list of priorities. When change requires harmonisation at Community level, with officials from the governments of 12 member states trying to reach agreement, and the subject having in turn to be high on the list of a president’s priorities, delays can be interminable.

Even when all these hurdles have been crossed, further delay is written into all legislation to give producers time to comply. An example of this at the national level is The Welfare of Pigs Regulations (1991) which only came into effect in 1999. And at Community level the Battery Hens Directive gives farmers nine years to increase stocking rates in existing units.

It is against the backcloth of such political realism that one has to consider the FAWC report. A fundamental difference in philosophy emerged as members of the FAWC began writing this report. So basic was this difference that the two viewpoints could not be reconciled. The original idea was to recognise these differences by publishing the report in two parts – as majority and minority reports. But the majority later decided that the minority view should not be allowed such prominence and decided to publish only the majority report with a brief note at the end indicating that there is a minority report.

The main points of difference between the two groups are:

  • Whether it is better to set standards which are moderate enough to accommodate industry and then to review these at a later date, or to set more stringent, long-term goals to be phased in over a suitable period of time.
  • The time scale it takes to achieve change either in welfare codes or through legislation.
  • Whether the quality of each of the components which go to make up the hen’s total environment has been given sufficient attention in setting out the quantitative requirement.
  • Whether the standards chosen are the best achievable to meet the needs of the hen.

The FAWC felt under pressure to produce improved standards that retailers could adopt immediately without waiting for major changes by producers. If this had been the FAWC’s only aim, the Council might have reached agreement. But most of the standards put forward were to be written in a form which would be difficult to change for a great many years – in the form either of regulations or of changes to the welfare code – which, moreover, would be recommended to the European Commission as a basis for its own regulations. This put an entirely different complexion on things.

Recognising that it takes years rather than months to get changes either to codes or to legislation, and even more years to allow producers to adapt, is it wiser to go for a series of short-term moderate changes, or to go straight to more profound changes with a much longer phase-in period? The authors of the minority report favor the latter approach as giving producers more stability and, in the long run, less cost.

Equally important is the fact that producers are still experimenting with new systems. So they need to know now what, in the light of available scientific evidence, is best for the animal. Given a long phase-in period, they can then adapt to the new conditions at their own pace.

The FAWC lays down the quantity of space, litter, perches and nestboxes to be provided for birds. The FAWC has also set a figure of 2000 as a maximum group size for the birds. The minority group recognises the severe problems that can arise in large groups of hens, but, in view of the lack of evidence, suggests only that group size be kept as low as possible. This is an area of research that has become urgent as flock sizes are now measured in thousands or even tens of thousands and continue to increase. Productivity per bird in these large flocks may be lower, but overall returns compensate for this, so productivity per se cannot be used as a measure of optimum flock size. This research should be given maximum priority.

A welcome advance in the report is the explosion of the myth that a temperature of 21 degrees C [70 degrees F] is a welfare measure rather than a purely commercial one. The report’s recommendations for regulations would also improve on the Commission’s Egg Marketing Regulations by stipulating some litter for all housed birds, and for free-range birds "sufficient" pop-holes to give all birds access to pasture, and a restriction of no more than 375 birds per hectare [close to 2.5 acres] when no rotational system is used.

The report states that "the following recommendations for welfare standards are based on the best available information and evidence in 1990/91." Unfortunately, since references to this information are not included, it is impossible to evaluate the validity of the report’s conclusions.

Within buildings, the report recommends a space allocation of 1425 square centimetres [1.5 sq ft] of usable space for each bird – seven birds per square metre [10 square feet]. But the note that they are aware of financial and management advantages of high stocking rates and note that it is possible to increase the numbers in the house by providing overhead perches or platforms. The report states that: "Behavioural research indicates that up to 55 per cent of the flock will be found on overhead perches/platforms during the day. This will allow stocking rates to be increased to 15.5 hens per square metre [10 sq ft) of floor plan area."

The crux of the argument on this halving of the floor space depends upon this "behavioural research," but the report does not give details. Who did the research? Where and when was it published? What was the stocking density when this measurement was taken? What was the type of floor? Is 55 per cent an average figure or, as the text implies, a maximum value? These are all valid questions that the report leaves unanswered. But they should be answered, because, as the authors state: "We believe that space allocation is one of the most important determinants of hen welfare in colony systems."

Further, the authors’ comments on the value to the bird of the space allocation of 1425 square centimetres are confused. In the forward, they say: "We are concerned to ensure that such systems meet the needs of the animal and to specify the criteria (such as allowances of space for the full range of normal activities)." In paragraph 30 the report states that: "hens should be given sufficient space to ensure that none of their essential behaviours is inhibited by overcrowding," whereas paragraph 75 (3) states that: "the allocation of 1425 square centimetres per bird is currently accepted as sufficient for the performance of the normal range of static behaviour patterns." Which is it to be? Of the static behaviour patterns, wing flapping takes more than the space allocated so it is designated as an activity for which space has to be shared.

On the question of beak-trimming, the report accepts that "beak-trimming is a serious welfare insult to the hen and can result in chronic pain for long periods after the operation." The authors recommend the banning of "routine, non-therapeutic" beak-trimming after 1996, but "concede allowing [it] when, in the opinion of an attending veterinary surgeon, there is a genuine risk of cannibalism." A recommended code provision is that "where it is considered necessary as a preventive measure it should be carried out when the birds are less than 10 days of age." A recommended regulation would make it an offence for "the dispatch by hatcheries to producers of badly beak-trimmed birds" at day-old. Beak-trimming at the hatchery is necessarily routine. So what, in practice, will change?

In 1979 the newly formed FAWC set out the "five freedoms" it wished to see provided for farm animals: "freedom from thirst, hunger or malnutrition; appropriate comfort and shelter; prevention, or rapid diagnosis and treatment, of injury and disease; freedom to display most normal patterns of behaviour; freedom from fear."

The new FAWC report insists that dim lighting and debeaking must be permitted to allow for the smooth running of systems for laying hens, but routine debeaking only for another five years. The authors of the minority report, however, regard reliance on these two major deprivations as totally unacceptable and an indication of the inadequacy of the recommendations put forward. They go on to question whether any system that relies on debeaking, heavy stocking and dim lighting can be said to provide three of the five freedoms outlined above: appropriate comfort to the birds, freedom to exercise most normal patterns of behaviour or freedom from fear.

So what is best for the birds? This, as the foreword points out, is not easy to define. But that does not mean that no attempt should be made to do so.

Researchers have emphasised that trouble occurs within flocks of hens when the quality of the total environment is inadequate. The report would have been far more valuable if this factor had been taken more seriously. And it is not only the quality of the individual components but the relationship between those components that is important.

Take litter, for example. No one disputes that birds need litter, but it is not only how much litter is provided that is important, but the type and quality of the litter. The minority report gives evidence to show that the type of litter and depth of litter, as well as quantity of litter, have a vital part to play in reducing feather pecking and encouraging adequate scratching and dustbathing behaviour, and even in keeping the birds warm in winter. Wood shavings are the most commonly used litter in alternative systems today, but they are also the least satisfactory because they adhere to the outer feathers and do not penetrate to the skin to assist in removal of excess oil and ensure that the plumage remains in good condition. Recommended alternatives are peat, chopped straw and sand.

The FAWC report also stresses that the litter should always be friable, but to maintain friability it must be worked by the birds. Recent work by Glarita Martin at the University of Stuttgart shows that hens in bright light (500 lux) will work litter far more than hens in low light (50 lux), keeping it friable rather than compacted and damp – conditions that allow a build-up of microorganisms in the litter, making the birds more vulnerable to disease.

Anyone who has travelled in a crowded underground train can appreciate what is meant by the term "personal space." The need for such space extends to other species. Aggression in hens is influenced by how much space and light the birds have, but the relationship is not a straightforward linear one. At both extremely high and very low densities, aggression is low, but it increases at intermediate densities. The densities being recommended by the FAWC are in this band of increased aggression. Similarly, we know that feather pecking and cannibalism can be controlled by keeping the birds in very dim light, but Martin has confirmed earlier work done in Switzerland and shown that increasing light levels also works. So the severe feather pecking that she observed at 50 lux disappeared when she increased the level to 500 lux. Conventional commercial wisdom faced with severe feather pecking at 50 lux would have been to reduce the level to near darkness.

The FAWC report says that space allocation is the single most important factor in improving the hen’s welfare, but then offers only enough space for some of its [sic] static behaviours. How much would increasing space for the bird increase the price of producing eggs? There is some information on this. Arnold Elson of ADAS, the government agricultural advisory service, has estimated that increasing space per bird from battery cages (stocked at 450 square centimetres [70 sq in.]) to semi-intensive systems (which account for most eggs sold as "free range" in shops) adds 35 per cent to producers’ costs. The National Farmers Union quotes production costs of 51.5p per dozen for battery eggs in United Kingdom Egg Producers Association News (26 July 1991). Thirty-five per cent of the NFU figures of 51.5p would give a production cost for "free-range" eggs of 70p per dozen (rounded up).

The Figure shows what retailers actually charged for battery eggs and for free-range eggs on 26 July 1991 and what they would have charged for free-range eggs with a 35 per cent increase over the retail cost of battery eggs.

It would seem from these charges that there is considerable room for manoeuvre for retailers to sell a higher proportion of "free-range" eggs at lower cost to the consumer. It would appear also that they are making disproportionate profits out of eggs at the expense of both producers and consumers. This is another area in which the Office of Fair Trading could usefully take an interest.

The FAWC’s report misses a golden opportunity to make a real contribution to the welfare of these much abused birds. An enormous amount of scientific evidence exists and, even though some of it is conflicting, clear patterns are beginning to emerge. If existing scientific and technical evidence had been collated and clearly presented, this report would have been invaluable for the industry, for government, and at an international level, even if agreement could not be reached on ultimate recommendations. If producers do not take the lead, significant improvement could be delayed by decades. The animals deserve better from the FAWC.

Ruth Harrison was a member of the Farm Animal Welfare Council. Her book Animal Machines, published in 1964, detailed the plight of animals in the growing factory farm industry. This led directly to the British government’s Brambell Committee and the FAWC. She served on these committees for 24 years and continued to write and campaign for farmed animals throughout the world until she died in June of 2000. To learn more about Ruth Harrison:


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