September 25, 2021

Humane Society and Egg Industry Want to Change Chicken Environment

EggsChicken eggs are the most common source for Salmonella Enteritidis infections in human beings. Since the 1990s, food safety experts have recommended that eggs be cooked well-done, and that consumers avoid eating raw or undercooked eggs. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the United Egg Producers (UEP) want to address these facts by proposing standards that will improve the living conditions of egg-laying hens.

In July 2011, the two groups agreed to new standards that would lay the groundwork for the first federal law addressing animal treatment on U.S. farms. This legislation would:

  • Require new housing systems that give each hen almost double the current amount of space.
  • Require that all egg-laying hens have a natural environment that let them scratch, sit on perches, and rest in nesting boxes.
  • Require labels on egg cartons to identify the environment the hens live in.
  • Prohibit withholding of food or water to extend the laying cycle.
  • Prohibit excessive levels of ammonia in henhouses.
  • Prohibit sale of eggs and egg products that don’t meet these standards.

The groups want these changes to be fully in effect by December 31, 2029. This law would supersede the many different state laws and regulations across the country.

The way that chickens and egg-laying hens are currently raised is distressing to many consumers and animal-rights activists. Chickens are routinely kept in small cages that are only 67 inches square, with wire bottoms that hurt their feet. The cages are stacked in semi-darkness. Their beaks are cut off because the living conditions cause such stress they often peck each other to death.

The chickens are routinely fed antibiotics because these living conditions promote disease. Consumer Reports has conducted studies that show 2/3 of factory-farmed-raised chickens are infected with Salmonella, Campylobacter, or both.

Crowded, unsanitary, and stressful living conditions naturally give rise to bacterial contamination and outbreaks of disease. This is true among all living creatures, from human beings to chickens. The Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association states that, “All sixteen scientific studies published in the last five years comparing Salmonella contamination between caged and cage-free operations found that those confining hens in cages had higher rates of Salmonella, the leading cause of food poisoning related death in the United States.” (In a bizarre side note, some studies that looked at the health of poultry workers found that more than 40% were infected with antibiotic-resistant Campylobacter.)

Simply washing uncracked eggs with soap and water used to solve the problem. But now, Salmonella gets inside the shell because the bacteria can live inside the chicken’s ovaries and infect the eggs before the shell is even formed.

This started occurring on farms in the 1980s. Every year, the CDC estimates that 2.2 million individual eggs are contaminated with Salmonella Enteritidis (SE). And in commercial kitchens, many recipes are made with large batches of eggs. One SE containing egg can contaminate an entire batch of food.

So changing the living conditions of egg-laying hens just might stem the tide. But there’s a wrench in the works. Last month, eight livestock and poultry producer groups wrote a letter to the House and Senate Agriculture Committee opposing the HSUS-UEP agreement. They say the new legislation would increase the cost of production and consumer costs and “do little if anything to improve bird welfare”. They claim the cost to the industry would be $10 billion over the next 17 years.

(Compare that to the financial cost of Salmonella poisoning over 17 years: $51 billion, according to a World Health Organization report written in 2005, the last year data was compiled.)

The groups that signed this letter include the Egg Farmers of America (a group that was formed in response to the proposed legislation), American Farm Bureau Federation, National Farmers Union, American Sheep Industry Association, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, National Milk Producers Federation, National Pork Producers Council, and the National Turkey Federation.

They are concerned that this legislation may create impetus to legislate living conditions for other farm animals, even though, according to UEP CEO Gene Gregory, the agreement specifically states that “HSUS and UEP will both walk away if there’s any effort to attach another animal species to this legislation.”

If you have an opinion about this proposed legislation, visit the Humane Society Alert Page to sign a petition supporting the Egg Products Inspection Act Amendments of 2011. Look for “pastured” eggs in your supermarket, since those come from chickens that can live in the open, foraging for food naturally. And always cook your eggs well-done. No matter how delicious “over-easy” fried or soft-poached eggs may be, they are risky to your health.

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