Healthier the hens, healthier the eggs

Esemplare di gallina autoctona: la livornese!

Battery hens, free-range hens, outdoor-raised hens, and organic outdoor-raised hens. What kind of chicken do you want? Or rather, what kind of chicken do you want to lay the eggs you consume? 

Today, declaring the use of eggs coming from free-range hens is a real trend.

The presence of this claim on the labels of different kinds of food products immediately presents them as more ethical and green. Is that true? Let’s get a closer look at the different typologies of the rearing of laying hens.

1. Battery hens

This practice was born at the end of the ’50s. Farmers did use batteries, but they were mostly used as nests to facilitate spawning in a protected environment. 

Following the global economic development and the rapid increase in population, here’s the need to transfer the productivity criteria to animal breeding, including the rearing of laying hens. 

The battery has several management-related advantages: 

  • the feeding process is simplified. Very long steel wires with plastic washers distribute the feed from the feed factory storage silos to the cage feeders.
  •  the same applies to water. This is first delivered in open canals and then administered with watering cans activated by the hen itself and its beak. 
  • the collection of laid eggs takes place with long ribbons of jute flowing in front of the cages. The eggs first roll through inclined planes on these ribbons and then are brought to the selection and packaging room with special metal chains called anaconda. 
  • the collection of excrements is facilitated and rationalized as well. The dejections fall through the meshes of the metal cages on the floor of the warehouse shed. These are then removed and dragged outside by huge scrapers.

The batteries themselves are staggered so that the dejections do not fall on the animal below. The cages develop vertically, reaching up to 10 floors!

  • Since the light-dark cycle is far from natural, the warehouse shed has no windows and is illuminated with artificial light. The law grants up to 16 hours of light and 8 hours of darkness per day.
  • Obviously, the lack of windows comes with ventilation problems. The ventilation is obtained with huge fans sucking the air from the warehouse shed. They have an additional function: drying the animal dejections facilitating their subsequent treatment.

However, this type of forced ventilation is particularly dangerous during summer. When the warehouse shed contains more than 50,000 animals, refreshing and cooling the room is quite hard. The temperature inside can be very high and cause several deaths among the animals. 

  • What is the size of a warehouse shed for the rearing of laying eggs hens? Usually, 492-656 foot by 33 foot, covering two floors.  How many animals does it contain? As we mentioned before, more than 50,000 animals per floor
  • What is the size of the cage?

Starting from January 1st, 2012, according to the Council Directive 1999/74/EC, the space for each animal has increased from 550 cm3 to 750 cm3, with a height of 45 cm. Basically, little more than a postcard for each animal. These are the so-called enriched cages, still permitted by law.

Is there more? 

The cutting of the beaks. This is necessary to prevent forms of cannibalism among animals living in such a condition for 12 months. 

Moreover, thanks to protein formulations of feed and the light-dark cycles mentioned above (up to 16 hours by law), these hens produce about 320 eggs per year, almost one per day.

Bionic machines, I’d say!

Eggs from battery hens intensive rearing

From the previous descriptions, everything seems very technological, tidy, clean, and, save for the absurdly cramped space in which animals live, even acceptable.

But I assure you that this is not the case.

It is difficult to visit intensive farms, especially because of the ever-looming danger of avian pandemics. When they occur in such large animal communities, pandemics always have devastating effects.

Years ago, I worked in an intensive rearing of laying hens, so I speak to you in full knowledge of the facts. The closest thing to an intensive rearing of laying hens is Dante’s description of  the circles of hell! In a warehouse shed 492-656 feetlong, even when the lights are on, you can’t see the bottom from the entrance at all.

Moreover, the noise made by all those piled animals is deafening. The air, due to the microparticles of suspended plumage, the smell of the animals themselves and their dejections, is almost unbreathable!

So, does that mean that intensive rearing of laying battery hens have no advantage?

 I’d rather say no!

When, back in the ‘50s, chickens were mostly raised through free-range farming, the cases of food coughs due to the use of salmonella-infected eggs were countless and also devastating!

In recent decades, thanks to intensive caged farming – and it should be said – the infinite precautions in the production of food introduced by the HACCP  (Hazard Analysis And Critical Control Points) Regulation (EC) No 852/2004, things have changed, a lot.

Unfortunately, there are still cases of coughing due to salmonellosis, but they are objectively less frequent than in the past. It is clear that this is a strictly anthropocentric point of view.

Another thing is the level of stress that these animals experience, which in such conditions is very high. It is like for us humans to spend their entire lives in prison, with a special regime of detention!

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2. Free-range hens

Back to the past!

Exactly, because animals of all breeds have always been raised by man since the most ancient times. As Kohelet or Ecclesiastes says, “There is nothing new under the sun”!

Yet, there is something new after all.

Free-range hens intensive rearing

First of all, they are still intensive rearing containing thousands of laying hens piled up in huge warehouse sheds indoor. The same light-dark cycle explained earlier applies here. 

In most of these structures the animals rocket into their own excrements, the litters, which are cleaned only with the change of animals at the end of the laying cycle. According to the Commission Directive 2002/4/EC, the density of animals must not exceed 9 animals per m2. The regulation however, does not limit the number of hens in a single room!

This is the table relating to the identification code of the egg type and therefore of the breeding methodology related to it: 

BATTERYFREE-RANGEOUTDOOR-RAISEDORGANIC
CODE3210
DENSITY13 hens per m²9 hens per m²9 hens per m²6 hens per m²
OUTDOOR SPACENONO4 hens per m²4 hens per m²
ANIMALSNo limitationsNo limitationsNo limitations3.000 per shed

Also in this type of breeding there is a forced ventilation of the structures, especially to keep the temperature under control during the warm season.

Thus, the situation of these hens is not much happier than that of their battery peers.

We’re still talking about prison!

To say that under such conditions the welfare of laying hens is fully respected does not seem right to me.

Another problem in intensive free-range rearing occurs in laying nests. Given the promiscuity of intensive free-range rearing, it is not uncommon for an animal to deposit its excrement on an egg.

Since the European legislation strictly prohibits any intervention of category “A” eggs (eggs intended for human consumption) including a simple brushing, dirty eggs with dejections, as well as cracked eggs, must be discarded (they will be indeed used for industrial processing after pasteurization). This is an additional cost to this type of intensive livestock farming.

Still, there are more serious issues to consider.

Keeping under control the many diseases that afflict hens on intensive free-range rearing is even more complicated than in the case of battery hens, precisely because of the greater promiscuity of animals.

Here’s a short list:

  • Diseases of viral origin
  • Bacterial diseases
  • Protozoan diseases: coccidiosis
  • Parasitic infestations.

In order to be properly treated, these diseases requires several drugs: sulfamides, vaccines and, last but not least, antibiotics! In addition, since the animals live on their own dejections, infectious phenomena are extremely easy to occur.

This very last aspect comes with greater problems that involves us humans as well. A pathology of laying hens, in particular, affect us closely: the infamous salmonellosis.

Let me just clarify one thing: salmonella is a ubiquitous bacterium, quite widespread in nature.

In the case of laying hens, they can carry the bacterium without showing any particular symptoms. However, as carriers they can transmit salmonella to the egg they produce.

Nature, however, does things right: typically the bacterium affects the exterior of the egg shell. This becomes infected on its way to the oviduct by entering in contact with dejections. Yet, the bacterium does not penetrate inside the egg. Why?

The egg is a totipotent cell, meaning that it produces life, in this case the chick. And nature protects life very well!

Only in exceptional cases, such as when an animal is seriously ill (yet, in this case, the hen is meant to die) can salmonella penetrate inside the egg.

In short, as you can see, intensive free-range rearing is not yet an ideal solution, especially when looking at animal welfare!

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To be continued…

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