The University of California, Davis, and Michigan State University have received $6 million from the Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply to support research on the sustainability of laying hen housing in the United States.

The first study of its kind, the three-year “CSES Laying Hen Housing Research Project” will explore the interactions and tradeoffs among food safety, worker safety, environmental impact, hen health and welfare, and food affordability aspects of three different housing systems. Information generated by the research is expected to help egg purchasers and producers make objective, science-based decisions as the egg industry evolves in response to consumer needs and desires.

The goal of the Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply is to evaluate the viability of various laying hen housing systems. The coalition is composed of leading animal welfare scientists, research institutions, nongovernmental organizations, egg suppliers, food manufacturers, and restaurant/food-service and retail food companies. It is facilitated by the Center for Food Integrity, a nonprofit organization established in 2007 to increase consumer trust and confidence in today’s U.S. food system.

“We are pleased to partner with such prestigious research organizations on this important work,” said Charlie Arnot, chief executive officer of the Center for Food Integrity. “Today there is much discussion about laying hen housing and standards of care but those conversations are centered primarily on one aspect of sustainability and lack adequate data from current commercial U.S. egg production facilities to provide the information necessary to make informed decisions. CSES members believe it is important to consider all potential impacts of responsible production in evaluating egg production systems. We hope the knowledge gained will benefit CSES members as well as the entire egg industry.”

Joy Mench, a UC Davis animal science professor and director of the Center for Animal Welfare, said that the funding offers the first opportunity for researchers to study the potentially wide-ranging impacts of producing eggs in different kinds of commercial hen housing systems in the U.S.

“The information gained will be useful to all consumers as they make decisions about what kinds of eggs to buy," Mench said.

Janice Swanson, director of animal welfare and a professor of animal science at Michigan State University said: “Our goal is to thoroughly understand the full range of sustainability factors. This multiyear study will examine seasonal shifts, bird lifecycles, bird health and behavior, environmental impacts, human health and other factors affecting the sustainability of the egg production system.”

The funding will support a comprehensive study examining five sustainability areas: environmental impact, food safety, worker safety, animal health and well-being, and food affordability.

3 cage types

The study will be conducted in commercial-scale buildings of three types:

  • conventional cage housing, the type of housing currently used by the majority of U.S. egg producers;
  • enriched cage housing (also known as a furnished colony system), which provides more freedom of movement because the cages are larger than conventional cages and is also equipped with perches, nesting areas, and material designed to facilitate foraging and dust-bathing behavior; and
  • cage-free aviary, a non-cage system that allows the hens to roam within a section of a building at floor level and vertically to perches and nest boxes.

Mench and Swanson are the co-scientific directors for the study. Darrin Karcher of Michigan State University is the overall project coordinator. Additional cooperating research institutions include Iowa State University and the USDA Agricultural Research Service.

The first research flock was established in late April 2011. The study will be replicated over two flocks with study completion expected in 2014. For updates on the CSES research, please visit http://www.SustainableEggCoalition.com.