ATLANTA - Contrary to what the animal rights advocates say, there's a lot to be said for locking hens up in cages, officials with an egg producers group told SN.
What many people don't realize is modern confinement systems offer a measure of protection against deadly bird flu, said Jeff Armstrong, the dean of the college of agriculture and natural resources at Michigan State University and chairman of the United Egg Producers' scientific advisory committee.
"The way to prevent bird flu is to limit contact between wild and domestic birds," said Armstrong, who chaired UEP's animal welfare advisory committee. "It's frustrating when some animal protection groups that have an agenda to remove animal products say confined egg laying facilities will spread bird flu."
The United States does not have the type of avian influenza strain that's cropped up in Asia and Europe, and industry officials credit the standard practice of housing poultry indoors under strict biosecurity procedures and surveillance for preventing the spread of AI.
Nevertheless, conventional farming practices have taken a beating from animal rights groups.
In the past year, groups succeeded in lobbying retailers and universities to stop selling eggs from caged birds.
A premium, niche category, cage-free eggs are gaining mainstream appeal with consumers who support animal rights. Trader Joe's most recently announced plans to stop selling eggs from caged birds under its private label.
Earlier, Wild Oats Markets agreed to stop carrying eggs from caged birds in all of its stores.
The UEP engaged a public relations firm to communicate the positive side of farm production, and the science-based animal care guidelines under which hens are raised.
UEP was instrumental in developing the United Egg Producers Certified program for cage egg production. The program was developed out of guidelines which set standards that protect the comfort, health and safety of chickens, including increased space per hen, standards for beak trimming and maintenance of fresh feed and water. The Food Marketing Institute and National Council of Chain Restaurants have endorsed the guidelines.
"We don't have the dollars to do massive advertising," said Gene Gregory, vice president of UEP. "With limited resources, we're trying to get the message out."
About 98% of all the eggs produced in the United States come from farms with modern cage production systems in housing that protects the flock from contact with migratory birds, predators and other diseases, officials at UEP said. Worldwide, more than 90% of eggs are produced in cages.
"Our producers will produce eggs in whatever form their customers want them in," Gregory said.
"Given a choice, because this is their livelihood, they would prefer to produce eggs in cages under this UEP certified program," he said. "Unless you're exclusively cage-free, the opinion of those with multiple systems is they're providing better care for their birds in cage systems than any other system.
"I can't stress enough these people as farmers care about their animals," he said. "They're interested in the birds' welfare."
The cage-free trend is small enough that it hasn't had much of an economic impact on conventional egg producers, he said.
For all the recent hoopla over specialty eggs, they don't always carry their weight around the supermarket.
Conventionally produced eggs turn much faster than higher-priced specialty eggs at retail, Gregory said, referring to a 2005 report on egg sales.
Still, the growing interest in cage-free eggs has prompted farmers interested in boosting their returns to explore cage-free operations, which are costlier to run. UEP's members include farmers with caged and cage-free operations.
"There is increased (producer) interest in cage-free and organic," Gregory acknowledged. "Those are niche markets. They make good money on those."