Proposition 2, an initiative passed by California voters in 2008, required that egg-laying hens (and calves raised for veal and pregnant pigs) be confined only in ways that “allow these animals to lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs and turn around freely”. Unfortunately no further clarification was given to guide producers as to how the needed to alter their production systems to be compliant with the law.

Some voters might have interpreted this initiative to mean “cage-free”, however in 2013 California Department of Food and Agriculture issued regulations stipulating the minimum number of square inches of floor space per laying hen, effectively requiring less hens per cage or bigger cages  to be CA SEFS Compliant (California Shell Egg Food Safety Compliant).

So by January 1, 2015 producers in California, and those out of state producers seeking to export their shell eggs for consumption in California had to comply with this law. Strangely, liquid eggs (whole, yolk, or white), frozen/dried eggs, hard-boiled eggs (in shell or peeled), cooked eggs (e.g. breakfast sandwiches), and shell eggs that are pasteurized in the shell are exempt from the law. The chickens producing these eggs are exempt from the Proposition 2 standards.
The question I think many might be interested in knowing, is whether this initiative has helped hen welfare? And the answer to that is complicated, as there is no agreed upon definition of “good” welfare. All production systems come with their own set of pros and cons and tradeoffs.

To help answer this question, the Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply (CSES) was formed to support research evaluating the sustainability of laying hen housing systems. The CSES members represented a variety of stakeholders, including food retailers and distributors, egg producers, universities, and governmental (USDA ARS) and nongovernmental organizations. According to their FAQs members include the American Humane Association; Bob Evans Farms; British Columbia Egg Marketing Board; Burnbrae Farms Limited; Cargill Kitchen Solutions; CCF Brands; Cracker Barrel Old Country Store; Daybreak Foods, Inc.; Egg Farmers of Canada; Egg Farmers of Ontario; Flowers Foods, Inc.; Forsman Farms; Fremont Farms of Iowa; General Mills; Herbruck Poultry Ranch, Inc.; Iowa State University; McDonald’s USA; Michael Foods, Inc.; Michigan State University; Midwest Poultry Services; Ohio Egg Marketing Program; Poultry Science Association; Purdue University; Sparboe Farms; Sysco Corporation; Tyson Foods; United Egg Producers; University of California, Davis; and University of Guelph.

The goal of the CSES was to provide scientifically based information on the trade-offs related to the sustainability of egg production by conducting holistic research on a commercial farm that had 3 different hen housing systems. This $6M study examined “various laying hen housing systems and potential impacts on food safety, the environment, hen health and well-being, worker health and safety and food affordability, providing food system stakeholders with science-based information on sustainability factors to guide informed production and purchasing decisions” (Mench et al. 2016).

The three hen housing systems that were evaluated in the study were: conventional caged (CC), enriched colony (EC) and cage-free aviary (AV). According to the CSES “the conventional cage system was chosen because the vast majority of eggs used by the U.S. food system at the time the research was planned and today originate from this system. The enriched colony and cage-free aviary systems were chosen as the most modern alternative types of systems that were available at the time and that were also beginning to be adopted by U.S. egg producers. The conventional cage system was comparable to other conventional cage systems widely used in the industry. In this case there were six hens per enclosure, with each hen provided 80 square inches.” This is less than the “minimum of 116 square inches of floor space per bird” for an enclosure containing nine or more egg-laying hens to be CA SEFS (Proposition 2) Compliant .

The CSES did a nice job of presenting the data in a comprehendible format for the general public, and their graphical interface is particularly useful. There you can find drop down menus looking at different attributes of sustainability: Food Safety and Quality, Animal Health and Wellbeing, Environment, Worker Health and Safety, and Food Affordability. This image from the Animal Health and Wellbeing dropdown is a useful example of the fact that no system is all good or all bad.

Results demonstrated the complexity of addressing sustainability problems, in that each housing system had negative and positive aspects. According to Mench et al. (2016), “The cage-free aviary (AV) provided hens with the most freedom of movement and opportunity to perform natural behaviors (flight, foraging, and dust bathing) and was also associated with some hen health benefits (best leg and wing bone strength, good feather cover, and low overall incidence of foot problems), but it was also the most expensive in terms of egg production costs and had the greatest hen mortality, the worst indoor air quality (with consequently greater risks for worker respiratory health related issues due to inhalation of dust and endotoxins), the greatest dust emissions, the greatest feed usage and hence carbon footprint, the greatest nutrient losses, and the greatest potential for microbiological contamination (aerobic organisms and coliforms) of eggs.”  It was also substantially worse in terms of cannibalism. The term “hen-pecked” and “pecking order” are in our vernacular for a reason.

So which is the most sustainable system? Well that depends upon what attributes of sustainability you value. Is it the one that best protects animal health/welfare, the one with the lowest environmental footprint per unit of product, or the most efficient, or the best one for worker health and safety, or that system which increases affordability, or some combination of the above?  Often there are direct conflicts between what “feels” like the best system from a purely emotional standpoint, and the objective data quantifying the impacts of that system. As with all dietary decisions there are tradeoffs among the various pillars of sustainability, and consumers will need to make the choices they consider to be best for their particular family values, budget, and circumstances.

Unfortunately, marketers or special interest groups will sometimes focus on a single sustainability component of a production system that is of particular interest or value to them, without holistically addressing the accompanying food safety, environmental, animal and worker health and safety, and food affordability implications and tradeoffs. This presents the public with a simplistic binary choice, avoid this production practice or buy my product that does not contain antibiotics/hormones/GMOS/gluten/etc. and does not objectively represent the complexities and nuances associated with imposing production system requirements on producers. That is the importance of choice in the marketplace – to allow consumers to purchase products that align with their values. However, groups are increasingly working to remove that choice and impose their unique set of values on the general population. More on that next.