People pay a premium for eggs with a Humane certification, yet certifiers have differing definitions of what constitutes a humanely raised hen.

Until there is some clarity on this issue, we will be treated to more opaque, nuanced labels that may or may not represent what you think is humane.

Most consumers will not be able to tell the difference between a naturally raised egg and one that comes from a factory farm by looking at it.  Some may point to the color of the yolk as an indicator of the chicken’s health and the egg’s nutritional content and yet color can be coaxed by adding certain ingredients in a chicken’s feed.   In lieu of a visual difference, we’ve created a slew of labels: cage free, certified humane, organic, natural, etc.  But even amongst these labels there is a difference between what the label suggests and what actually takes place on the farm.  In my search for humanely produced eggs, I have found two accepted definitions of what is considered “humane” in the egg industry.

Humane meaning that the animals are provided the bare minimum of their basic necessities: light, ventilation, space to move around, food, and scratching carpets and perches. These are provided artificially in a densely populated, confined and exclusively indoor environment.

Humane meaning that the animals are able to express all of their natural behaviors in a natural environment, which includes ample time outdoors and uncrowded, uncaged housing.

To get an understanding of what the difference between these two definitions looks like, take the stark contrast between Enriched Colony Housing and the methods practiced at Coastal Hill Farm in Petaluma, California.

Enriched Colony Housing

Enriched Colony Housing can go by several different names, including “enhanced”, “furnished” or “modified” cages.  Yes, you heard correctly—cages.  To use the term industrialized farming to describe Enriched Colony Housing is very appropriate as it consists of a fully automated caging system which provides the birds with all of their basic necessities.  You’ll remember these as light, ventilation, feed, perches, a scratching carpet—all within the confines of an “enriched” cage which can house anywhere between 10-100 birds, depending on the size of the cage.

In an Enriched Colony Housing system, you will find rows of large cages stacked vertically, with chickens’ heads popping out to the feed trough, to which food is delivered by a conveyor belt.  Sunlight is simulated by artificial lighting, a pad is provided for hens to scratch on, and just enough space has been provided to allow the birds to stretch.  Within the cages are laying boxes and perches.

Certified Humane

American Humane Society, one of the oldest and largest farm animal welfare certifiers in the US, stated its reasoning for allowing this type of caged housing under its label.

American Humane Certified will not certify conventional cages, but has determined that enhanced colony housing is scientifically acceptable, in part because the system provides nesting boxes and perches, in addition to other enrichments, which allow hens to exhibit natural behaviors.

Read their full explanation here

Despite the claim that all of the birds’ necessities are technically being met, this automated multi-cage system stands in contrast to the life of a flock that enjoys the freedom, sunlight and fresh air of the outdoors. It’s the difference between meeting the most basic requirements in an artificial, caged environment vs providing a natural environment in which the birds meet their needs in a normal way.  While proponents of the caged systems argue that the essential needs of the animals have been calculated and provided for, these systems do not address that chickens are naturally competitive. Confining them indoors in close environments with nothing to do can enhance their tendency toward aggressive and bullying behaviors.  Ample space in which to maintain their social hierarchy, as well as the healthful and varied activities that chickens engage in outdoors, are basic needs which are not acknowledged by those who advocate caged systems, enriched or otherwise.

Do the so called enrichments of these new cages represent an improvement over the horrors of barren battery cages?  Perhaps.  But does the Humane label represent something higher than just a bit better than the worst thing we’ve seen so far?  Every person will have to decide that for themselves.

Coastal Hill Farm

Bobby Foehr is a small egg producer in Petaluma, California.  Nearly a thousand laying hens live on Bobby’s farm, in a large purpose built barn with clean bedding, ample perches at many different height levels and a wall of laying boxes.  The barn doors are open during the day, letting in plenty of air and light. There is no need for specialized ventilation because the density of the birds is not such that ammonia or heat builds up.

Adjacent the hen housing is a large fenced field that overlooks rolling hills, dotted with farms.  The birds come and go freely, eating and drinking as they please from the many feeders provided.   The hens have ample space, food water, perches and nesting boxes inside to satisfy their natural inclinations.  Outside, they peck, run about, preen, dust bathe and enjoy the sun.  They are allowed to moult naturally, their beaks are never trimmed, and they are never given antibiotics or hormones.  On a tour of his farm, I was impressed by how handsome the chickens looked, and how active they were outside.

Bobby collects the eggs by hand from the boxes and washes them with a simple water bath and a good scrub, before packing the egg cartons.  His eggs carry the label Certified Humane Raised And Handled.

While this description of Bobby’s poultry farm may sound idyllic, it’s actually the way people used to farm chickens until fairly recently, when people decided to apply the industrial factory model to living beings.

Why it’s important to know where you stand

As confinement cages are increasingly banned in many countries, chicken and egg farmers are struggling to find an economically viable alternative.  Enriched Colony Housing may provide a better method of raising chickens over the notorious barren battery cages, which are as bad as they sound.  However, some chicken farmers, customers and other humane certifiers—such as Humane Farm Animal Care in the US, or animal welfare organizations such as SAFE in New Zealand—have taken the stance that a cage is still a cage.

Recently the egg industry in the United States has introduced federal legislation (H.R. 3798 and S. 3239) that would establish egg factory cages as a national standard.  If it passes, this standard could never be challenged or changed by state law or public vote.  The Humane Farming Association has created a 90 second animation that details the issues, called A Cage Is A Cage.  For Americans, it may be now or never to decide where they stand on cages.

In a video released by the SPCA of New Zealand after touring farms utilizing the colony cages, several points were brought up about how poorly the chickens looked, how inadequate the perches were and the fact that the cages contained more birds than they were designed to house.

What do you think?

Since the various organizations that certify eggs as Humane cannot agree on whether that includes a life that is lived entirely in a cage or not, it’s up to you to figure out what a humanely raised hen means to you, and then make sure the producers you buy from reflect those values and priorities.  The label is a start, but as we continue to see, it is not nearly enough.

Seeing for yourself is always the best way to make a decision. It’s unlikely that a factory farm, whether they “enrich” their cages or not, will invite you in for a tour.  If you’d like to get a visual idea of what Enriched Colony Housing looks like, there are many videos on YouTube.com, provided by the companies that make the new cage systems, that detail all the features of the automated cage systems.  As for Bobby, he does give tours.

Definition of the word enrich, from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:

to make rich or richer especially by the addition or increase of some desirable quality, attribute, or ingredient.

a :to add beauty; to adorn

b :to enhance: the taste of butter will enrich the sauce

c :to make (a soil) more fertile

d :to improve the nutritive value of (a food) by adding nutrients (as vitamins or amino acids) and especially by restoring part of the nutrients lost in processing: enriched flour

e :to process so as to add or increase the proportion of a desirable ingredient: enriched uranium; enriched natural gas

Find out more

Read about my tour of Coastal Hill Farm

RNZSPCA stance on colony cages

Read our Ethical Foods Guide to buying organic, humane eggs

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