Thursday, September 2, 2010


The controversy regarding the technology now being deployed for mass production of eggs using "packed" battery cages has been going on for some time during the last few years with the animal activists on a rampaging campaign to stop the inhuman practice. They even attribute the frequent Salmonella contamination episodes to these unscientific practices. On the other hand poultry industry defends their technology saying that consumers would never get the egg so cheap if the facilities are to be expanded providing more space for each bird using larger cages and stringent safety system deployed to prevent contamination of eggs. Besides the beaks of the birds are trimmed to avoid mutual pecking by the irritated birds and consequent injury and infection because of cramming and feeding of ground chicken meat make them develop canniballic tendency. It was California which was the first state to ban such high density crowding of birds stipulating minimum area required for each bird. The European Union is also actively considering such restrictions and it is a question of time before other countries also follow the new protocols. While such compulsory enforcement may not be possible in many cases, poultry industry itself has realized that it cannot continue with its overcrowded facilities and is slowly contemplating changes.

"Farmers in Ohio have accepted the agreement with chagrin, saying they sense that they must bend with the political and cultural winds. Tim Weaver, whose grandparents started selling eggs in the early 20th century, is proud of his state-of-the art facilities, where four million birds produce more than three million eggs a day. In just one typical barn here at his Heartlanality Egg Farm, 268,000 small white hens live in cages about the size of an open newspaper, six or seven to a cage. Mr. Weaver said that after his initial shock at the agreement, he has accepted it as necessary. He will not be immediately affected since it allows existing egg farms to continue but bars new ones with similar cages. He defends his methods, saying, "My own belief is that I'm doing the right thing." Egg production is at the center of the debate because more than 90 percent of the country's eggs are now produced in the stacked rows of cages that critics call inhumane. Ohio is the country's second-largest egg producer, after Iowa. In the modern version of an egg barn, hordes of hens live with computer-controlled air circulation, lighting and feeding, their droppings whisked away by conveyor belt for recycling as fertilizer. As the hens jostle one other, their eggs roll onto a belt to be washed, graded and packed without ever being touched by human hands. Mr. Weaver insists that his chickens are content and less prone to disease than those in barnyard flocks, saying, "If our chickens aren't healthy and happy, they won't be as productive." Keeping chickens in cages is cruel and unnecessary, counter advocates like Wayne Pacelle, chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States, which has played a central role in the state-by-state battles. "Animals that are built to move should be allowed to move," he said in an interview, and for chickens that means space for dust-bathing, perching and nesting. The assertion that animals must be "happy" to be productive is not accurate, Mr. Pacelle added, pointing to abnormal behaviors like head waving or bar-biting and to a loss of bone density in confined animals. In the mid-20th century, developments in animal nutrition and farm technologies as well as economic competition spurred the emergence of large-scale farms, often driving out small farmers who could not afford the large capital investments or survive the lower prices".

Probably increased sensitivity to the feelings of the consumers could have changed the attitude of the industry and this bodes well for all concerned. Whether providing larger cage space for the birds would yield a better quality chicken is not certain but the chances of contamination with pathogens can definitely be expected to come down significantly. One of the issues raised during debate on modern industrial production of eggs blame the farms for not effectively disinfecting the cages regularly because of the pressure on improving productivity and profitability of the farms. The excuse for the small scale poultry producers not to go in for "humane" cages because of additional investment required for expending their facilities may not stand scrutiny because of easy availability of credits from financial institutions for such modifications. In the interest of the consumer it makes good sense to modernize the poultry producing facilities even if it takes time to do it over a period, mobilizing the needed investment.


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