Research shows stockmanship has a bigger influence on hen welfare than housing system

The green credentials of higher welfare egg production were questioned at a conference in London, when the International Egg Commission (IEC) set out its intention to develop a sustainable egg initiative.

As part of its sustainability initiative, the IEC says it wants to “enhance and create an egg value chain that believes in and displays social responsibility, whilst being environmentally sound and economically sustainable.” The IEC says in its declaration that it will “champion continuous development and improvement in sustainability across the global egg value chain through multi-sector stakeholder engagement, collaboration, knowledge sharing, sound science and leadership.”

During the IEC conference in London, Ignacio Gavilan, director of sustainability at the Consumer Goods Forum, which represents retailers and food manufacturers around the world, set out plans to enhance sustainability by pursuing deforestation-free soya.

But Chad Gregory, president and CEO of United Egg Producers in the United States, questioned how the egg industry could pursue sustainability at the same time as the US and other developed countries were moving to cage-free production.

“In the United States we are being forced to go from conventional caged egg production, or even enriched colony production, to cage-free and yet it’s counter-productive, actually, to better environmental sustainability. 500,000 more acres of soya beans are going to be needed, a million more acres of corn is going to be needed to switch from cages to cage-free in the US. And so it’s counter-productive to what you’ve talked about, about deforestation, because we are going to have 500,000 more acres of soya beans and a million more acres of corn just to feed these cage-free birds. “I am just curious, from your perspective, how does it work? We want to be environmentally sustainable but if we are going to be going to something that’s not as environmentally sustainable how does that work in your world?”

Ignacio Gavilan recognised the dilemma, but he said it was a matter of balance and, ultimately, it would be a decision for consumers to make.

“Just moving to organic production will require more land. Of course, the public demands organic food or cage-free chicken in this case. So for us it’s a question of information for the public – understanding the real cost implications.”

He said, “I think the obligation to the public is important – to understand that fast production, efficient is cheap; organic production, more land, more needs etcetera, etcetera. Of course there is a balance in there. It is a very difficult one.

“Obviously there is a need for land.” He said the land was there; it was a case of how that land was organised. “So if you want cage-free you have to understand the implications.” He cited the example of GM food. Companies simply tried to be transparent, labelling whether food was GM or GM-free. It was for the consumer to choose. “With cage-free, if it has implications the consumer needs to know.”

IEC chairman Tim Lambert said, “I would argue that a lot of our members don’t yet full understand the trade-offs they are being asked to make if they go totally cage-free. By being engaged – whether its the Consumer Goods Forum or the OIE on layer welfare standards – this gives us the opportunity to engage in a conversation to provide that knowledge and be involved in helping set reasonable goals that we can all share and work towards.”

Tim Lambert had said earlier that a number of companies around the world were now looking at sourcing sustainable soya – a key protein ingredient in chicken feed. 

In his opening address to the conference he said there were great opportunities for the egg industry, with the “myth of cholesterol” overcome, consumption growing and research suggesting eggs were, in fact, a superfood. But he said that the egg industry had to ensure it maintained the trust of consumers.

He said the notion of trust was a central one for the egg industry. “The public trust in who we are, the public trust in our product, an interest in people knowing where their food comes from, an interest in people knowing that if we work with animals that we are caring for them humanely, interest in everything from use of antibiotics and antimicrobials to disease management of avian influenza. 

Hr said sustainability was one issue that was important. Food waste and packaging were other issues that were appearing more in the news these days. “You hear more in the news and media about the impact of plastics in our society,” he said.

Forced labour was another issue that was starting to be addressed. “There are more slaves in the world today than at any other time in mankind,” said Tim, who said that the IEC had adopted a commitment that every worker should have freedom of movement, no worker should pay for a job and no worker should be indebted or coerced to work.

Ignacio Gavilan told conference delegates that there were an estimated 40 million victims of forced labour. Some 60 per cent of them were women and 20 per cent were children.