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Health, Science, Environment

Cracks in the system: Debate continues on safest method to house hens

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 1, 2013 - John Miller walks across the lime covered floor of his chicken barn and steps out a small door into an open field in rural Campbell Hill, Ill.

The fenced-in space is about an acre with a small creek and tree line on the other side of the chicken wire. Dozens of his 500 Hy-Line brown laying hens follow him. The temperature is in the low 40s and the wind is gusty, but the hens do not seem to mind.

Miller’s farm 90 miles southeast of St. Louis is host to vegetable and strawberry fields and has ample parking set aside for visitors. Miller designed the barn so the chickens could get fresh air and so he would not be embarrassed if people came by to see where their eggs came from.

Two hundred miles north of Miller’s farm, Chet Utterback stands at the end of a row of cages in a windowless, concrete-floored building.

The University of Illinois’ laying barn is home to about 3,000 chickens housed in wire cages. Hens share cages and are allotted 78.8 square inches of space. Each row has three levels of cages with conveyor belts running in front of the pens for food and under to collect manure. The bottoms of the pens are slightly angled so eggs roll out the front of the pens into a collection tray.

The building is one of two that house chickens. Set behind a chain-linked fence, both buildings are part of a small, eight-acre complex at the university poultry farm outside of Urbana, Ill. Visitors are greeted with signs warning about trespassing and bio-security threats.

One man produces eggs in a free-range and cage-free environment. The other uses a enclosed, caged system. Both men are proud of their operations and believe the practices they use are the best. 

A national debate is going on as to which method is better. Hen housing is the primary focus of proposed federal legislation to replace current, state-level guidelines for housing and production practices.

Utterback, manager of the university's poultry farm, thinks cage-free housing could increase the risk of Salmonella enteritidis.

“With the law that the Humane Society of the United States and United Egg Producers are pushing -- for colony enriched housing like they have in Europe -- those types of systems cannot be cleaned and can’t be maintained as clean as a conventional cage system,” he said.

Salmonella E. can be transmitted several ways, including through manure. Utterback worries that chickens not housed in conventional cages will scratch through manure and then become infected with Salmonella E.

“People tend to forget the reason we put chickens in cages in the 1950s was not only for the chicken’s welfare but from a human health standpoint,” said Utterback.

But Miller says his cage-free operation is Salmonella free. As part of a pending contract to supply eggs to Whole Foods in St. Louis, Miller recently conducted voluntary Salmonella E. testing of his free-range, cage-free facility.

“I had to send in five swabs from the barn; I tried to get places like the perch and areas where the birds spend a lot of time,” said Miller. “The test results came back. There was an absence of Salmonella E., so that’s good.”

Miller thinks his eggs are just as safe as any other egg sold today. To him housing systems are more of an animal welfare issue.

The egg bill

The egg bill now in Congress is backed by an odd couple – the Humane Society of the United States and United Egg Producers, the national trade association for the industry.

Cracks in the system

An investigation by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting shows the new egg safety inspection system is still rife with slow responses, low standards and a lack of communication and coordination among federal oversight agencies.

Among the findings:

* The Food and Safety Inspection Service had not inspected the “laying barns” at egg operations nor had officials reached out to the FDA to coordinate inspections. Officials believed that the FSIS did not have authority to do so, according to a 2012 federal audit.

* Between July 2010 and September 2011, more than 80 percent of nearly 400 samples voluntarily submitted for Salmonella testing to one government agency proved to be positive but the results were never made public.

* Ten egg companies with a federal egg grader on site had multiple samples that tested positive for Salmonella E., a bacterium that kills 400 people a year and sickens an estimated 1.2 million people. Due to a lack of mandatory reporting laws, the agency did not notify any other federal agency of the results.

* Testing and reporting for Salmonella remain voluntary. Producers can send samples to the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service for testing, but it is not required to disclose test results publicly -- even if a test is positive. Officials worry that if they were required to do so, producers would no longer use their testing services.

The egg producers were forced into an alliance with the Humane Society after it won passage of a series of state laws with strict hen housing requirements.

The heart of the bill requires the transition from conventional caged systems to what is called “colony enriched housing.”

“In 2008 the Humane Society of the U.S. got Proposition 2 passed in California,” said Chad Gregory, president of United Egg Producers. “Prop 2 said that animals should be able to stand up and spread their limbs without touching anything. There are serious implications to the egg industry. If one state has to abide by this and states across the border don’t, producers could move there.”

Enriched colony housing systems provide about twice the space as conventional housing systems. Hens would have a 4 feet by 12 feet space that offers scratch areas, perches and a nest box. Traditional cages are wire pens with no enrichments. Current guidelines require 72 square inches of space per bird.

Ohio, Michigan, Oregon, Washington and Arizona have adopted hen housing legislation since California adopted Prop 2. United Egg Producers sees federal legislation as a way to stop future battles over state ballot initiatives, most of which egg producers were losing.

“If we can’t pass this bill this year, by January 2015, the California egg industry is out of business,” said Gregory. “If we can’t pass this federal bill, Ohio, the second largest producing state, and Michigan are out of business by 2020. We want this to pass so we have a future.”

He said the egg bill would level the playing field between producers in different states. (Click here to read about what happens when the egg bill meets the farm bill.)

“We worked a deal, a partnership, with the Humane Society to stop pushing for state laws; in exchange we will support going from conventional cages to enriched colony cages within 15 years.”

The 15 year deadline is a negotiated timeline. “We wanted 30 years and they [Humane Society] wanted five, in theory we settled between the two,” said Gregory.

Utterback repeatedly said that consumers do not understand the ways their food is produced.

“In California they have ridiculous animal welfare laws,” said Utterback. “I have worked with poultry for 35 years and I have never seen a chicken walk around with its wings out, fully extended. You have people passing laws that have no idea what they are doing or the effects of these laws.”

Not all egg producers back the compromise.

Egg farmer and pork producer Amon Baer of Minnesota said he decided to set up his own Washington lobbying group to fight the egg bill.

Baer hired a D.C. lobbying firm to represent Egg Farmers of America. The firm also represents the National Pork Producers Council, the International Dairy Foods Association, Hormel and many other large agribusiness interests.

Egg Farmers of America issued a statement in February 2013 saying that animal and human health concerns are associated with enriched colony housing.

One of the group’s press releases cited a report: “Hens in enriched colonies experienced increased leg and wing fractures.” The release also cited a study that indicated Salmonella E. was transmitted at a higher rate in hens not housed in conventional cage systems.

“I read an article that said Americans want a 100 percent full-proof, safe food supply; and that is the most ludicrous thing I have ever heard of. There is no such thing,” said Utterback.

But he did acknowledge: “It all boils down to good management practices in any type of housing system.”

Utterback also mentioned his concern about the costs incurred by producers to adopt new housing systems. He worries this would make eggs too expensive for consumers.

Gregory of United Egg Producers thinks the costs will be manageable.

“The cost to producers would be for the equipment,” said Gregory. “There are 285 million laying hens in the U.S. and 96 percent are in conventional cages. Producers would already be spending around $6 billion in 15 years to maintain the conventional equipment.”

The total cost to the egg industry for the enriched colony housing would be an additional $4 billion. Gregory said if the bill is passed, consumers could expect to pay about 10 cents more for a dozen eggs.

But Egg Farmers of America does not agree with that projection. It cites an economic impact study conducted by the United Soybean Board that indicates a 25 percent increase in consumer cost.

Another aspect of the egg bill would be to establish guidelines on induced molting of hens. Hens stop producing eggs and their ovaries “rest” and reset during a molt. Allowing a hen to molt will extend her egg-producing years. The average hen will go through at least one and probably two molts while in production.

Years ago producers would withdrawal feed and reduce the number of hours hens were exposed to light. Total food withdrawal was, however, linked to increased levels of Salmonella E. in some studies.

Producers now use “feed-through” programs designed to reduce stress on the hen, and thus reduce colonization of Salmonella E. in the bird. Regulating light exposure is still used, Patterson said.

The egg bill would ensure the use of molting methods approved by animal welfare groups such as the Humane Society.

Both Utterback and Miller have timers in place to regulate the number of hours of light in their laying barns.

Two approaches to egg production

Views on animal welfare and consumer choice divide producers.

“The birds get more exercise and the air quality is better,” said Miller. “Customers want specialty eggs. I can’t compete with a guy who has 10,000 chickens, and that’s fine. I am here for the people who want a direct connection with where their eggs come from.”

Miller is a new producer. His custom-designed barn was constructed in 2012 for about $25,000. He kept cost down by doing most of the construction with his oldest son.

The barn has several special features to keep the chickens comfortable year-round. The barn is covered with thick, white plastic. Each side can roll up several feet to allow in fresh air. The sides have an inner wire wall to keep chickens in when the sides are up.

The thermostat is set to control the air temperature in the barn. Cooling fans and the adjustable sides automatically engage as the temperature changes.

Miller’s hens started laying at the end of September 2012. He gets more than 450 eggs a day from his cage-free, free-range flock. He is considering trying to become certified organic, but acknowledged it is a long process.

His hens lay eggs in individual nests with a plastic flap in front for privacy. Eggs roll out the back into a collection tray. There are perches in front of the nests, covered with chicken manure. This is one of the areas Miller made sure to swab as part of his Salmonella testing.

Miller said that his chickens do run for cover when a large bird flies over. His hens usually hide in the barn or another small shed inside the fenced area when this happens.

Using a homemade light box constructed of plywood, Miller candles all eggs as required by law before packaging them. His egg wash and packaging station is set up in his garage between the family’s deep freeze and carriage.

Eggs are stored across the road in a stand-alone refrigeration unit set between his strawberry patch and field where vegetables grow. A small building sits next to the cooling unit. Miller uses the building for administrative work when visitors come to the farm to pick berries or buy vegetables.

“I can’t commercially supply eggs to feed the world, prices would be too high,” said Miller. “But there is a market for this type of egg. I think there is a place for everybody [producers].”

Miller was also very open about showing any part of his operation to visitors. He had no concerns about photos being taken anywhere in his barn or of any of his birds. “I have nothing to hide,” he said.

Utterback, however, was quite concerned about photos taken in the university facility. He said photos can be taken out of context and if people don’t understand the industry they might see something as mistreatment.

“The only reason you were allowed in here is because I am a part of a public teaching institution. You would not have been allowed on another farm because of bio-security,” said Utterback.

He later added: “I hate sneaky people. Unscrupulous animal rights people, challenging the food industry, have made it hard to trust people and tougher on people to get access to places like this.”

Birds at both missing feathers

Miller and Utterback agreed that is just part of having chickens housed together in any system.

The University of Illinois facility was completed in 2007 at a cost of $3.2 million. Besides the breeding and laying hens, the farm has a small flock set aside for ovarian cancer research.

Visitors to the laying barns must cover their shoes with booties so as not to track in foreign substances. If visitors had been in contact with other poultry before visiting, they would be required to put on a full-protective suit.

The primary laying barn has a small area for administrative work and supply storage. Off that room is a large cooler where eggs are stored. In the cooler are several pallets of cased eggs. The cases are sorted by destination.

Some eggs will be sold directly to consumers as part of the University of Illinois fresh egg program. Cracked or substandard eggs would be shipped to a processing plant. “Breaker” plants take eggs, break them and then convert them into a processed or pasteurized egg product.

The clucking of 3,000 hens is overwhelming when you enter the room of cages. The area is clean and the floors clear, but a very distinct odor lingers in the air.

A student worker walks through the aisles gathering the eggs out of the collection trays. The poultry farm employs around 10 student workers and two full-time employees.

Utterback demonstrates how food is distributed on the conveyor belt in front of the cages. Hens group to the front of the cage when they hear the belt turned on. Water dispensers run along the back side of each cage.

“A chicken's brain is the size of its eyeball,” said Utterback. “That isn’t too big. They don’t care they are in cages. They actually feel safer in here. They don’t have to worry about being attacked.”

“A great deal of egg farmers left in the U.S. produce under a variety of systems; it is all about consumer choices,” said Gregory. “Most producers don’t think negatively about any system because they market eggs from all of them.”

Paul Patterson, professor of poultry science at Pennsylvania State University, said there is conflicting data about the safety of colony enriched housing and free-range systems.

“It is a wash,” said Patterson. “It [non-conventional systems] gives the hens more space, but it increases fecal exposure, which cages would keep them out of.”

More production differences

“A lot of times people think big is bad; in this case it isn’t bad at all,” said Gregory. “The larger producers have the resources and expertise in the area of food safety. Small farms don’t have the resources to do this.”

He also said that as with most sectors of agriculture, the egg industry has seen a consolidation of farms.

“Larger farms, larger companies with more sophisticated equipment are in place today. In 1976 there were 10,000 commercial egg producers in the U.S., and now there are less than 200. Producers that had food safety and animal or environmental issues have gone out of business."

Patterson said the Food and Drug Administration, which has jurisdiction over shell egg inspections, is now challenged with how to handle free-range producers.

“Access to the outdoors is a huge challenge to biosecurity and a greater challenge from vermin and other birds.”

Both can be predators of the hens, as well as possible Salmonella carriers.

“There are yuppie consumers who have helped create niche markets for types of eggs,” said Patterson. “There are a lot of options for eggs: cage free, organic, Omega 3 … not all are well defined. Organic would be the one that is.”

For eggs to be labeled organic, the producer must register with the Agricultural Marketing Service and complete the certification process. This can take as long as three years and requires a great deal of paperwork on the part of the producer.

Utterback had many concerns about the safety of eggs produced in any system other than traditional caged systems. He primarily cites the increased access to manure as the reason for his concerns. He also feels smaller producers are not as well regulated.

Suzanne Moss, director of the egg inspection program for Illinois, said that all producers in the state, regardless of production method or number of hens, are licensed and regulated.

Moss said the state does not have its own requirements for organic farms, which are certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture; but anyone who produces or distributes eggs in the state must have an Illinois license to do so.

Inspectors from Moss’ office travel to the production and distribution sites to inspect prior to the original licensure and then on an annual basis.

Moss further noted that applications have gone up each year and the state now has more than 1,100 large and small licensed producers.

“More people are dealing in eggs,” said Moss. “Some have back yard flocks, but there are also more full-time producers. That speaks to the growth in the market for eggs.”

Next: Salmonella is a problem in beef inspections, too.

The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting is an independent, nonprofit newsroom devoted to coverage of agribusiness and related topics such as government programs, environment and energy. For more information, go to www.investigatemidwest.org.

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