Editors’ Picks: Study eyes “sustainable” hen housing

A U.S. coalition of animal welfare researchers, non-government organizations and egg suppliers plans a major study of the “sustainability impacts” of different housing methods for laying hens.

The research is to be led by Michigan State University (MSU) and the University of California at Davis (UC Davis). Fast food chain McDonald’s plans to use eggs produced during the study in its U.S. restaurants. The study is expected to involve “tens of thousands” of hens.

A coalition advising the study includes McDonald’s, the American Humane Association (AHA), American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS), Cargill Inc. and the Center for Food Integrity (CFI).

“There’s a very compelling need for a study of this scope,” AHA CEO Marie Wheatley said in a McDonald’s release last week.

“While scientists indicate there are benefits for laying hen birds to be able to demonstrate more natural behaviours associated with a cage-free environment, there are open questions on other animal welfare matters such as feather pecking and mortality rates.”

The AHA is better known as the organization that monitors the safe use of animals in the U.S. film industry, and as owner of the trademarked “No animals were harmed” disclaimer in U.S. films’ closing credits.

The CFI, another advisor, counts U.S. food companies and agribusinesses, farmers’ groups and state ag departments among its supporters.

“Not just welfare”

“This is a welcome initiative for egg purchasers like McDonald’s who want to consider all of the sustainability impacts when it comes to buying eggs — not just animal welfare, but environmental, food safety and economic factors,” said Dan Gorsky, McDonald’s senior vice-president for North America supply chain management.

“It is our intention for eggs produced as part of this study, including cage-free eggs, to partially supply McDonald’s USA by 2011.”

Research on the design and infrastructure of the study has begun in conjunction with MSU and UC Davis. The timeline and costs are being determined, as well as standards for each housing type, with input from participating experts.

“A thorough understanding of the full range of sustainability factors regarding hen housing is an important goal of this project,” MSU researcher Janice Swanson said. “The coalition anticipates a multi-year study to factor in seasonal shifts, bird lifecycles and other factors.”

“This study will provide critical information that will allow us to better understand how laying hen behavior is accommodated in different housing systems, as well as how these environments affect other aspects of hen welfare,” UC Davis researcher Joy Mench said.

Due in part to its buying power and market share, the McDonald’s chain has been seen in recent years as a bellwether of supply-chain practices in the fast-food industry. Enlisting the help of U.S. animal welfare expert Temple Grandin, the company in 1999 established a welfare auditing program for its meat suppliers.

Last month the company announced plans to implement a “global forestry policy” for the products and packaging it purchases, by 2010.

However, McDonald’s participation in the MSU/UC Davis study has drawn fire from other animal welfare groups such as the Humane Society of the United States, which noted Tuesday that other fast food chains, including McDonald’s own U.K. operations, have already adopted a policy of using only “free-range” eggs.

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