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Influence of E.U. Welfare Policy on Aviary Systems in the U.S.

10/28/2018

It is axiomatic that trends in flock welfare in the E.U. have a direct, albeit delayed, effect on housing systems in the U.S. This is due to the close association among welfare organizations on either side of the Atlantic. Going back two decades, the initial standards established for U.S. broiler production were strongly influenced by the U.K. Royal Society of Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA). The two U.S. certifying agencies closely adapted housing and operational practices as required by the RSPCA and these were also incorporated in the original standards adopted by the National Chicken Council. We have observed the influence of E.U. practices on introduction of “slow growing” strains of broilers, controlled atmosphere stunning, mechanical harvesting and sub-therapeutic administration of antibiotics.

A second consideration is that food service companies and retail chains are either multinational in ownership or their policies are heavily influenced by perceptions of consumer attitudes regarding welfare in the industrialized economies of Western Europe. Design of housing, selection of equipment and management of flocks is obviously predicated by a response to consumers and an escalation in regulatory standards. This is especially the case with respect to housing of laying flocks. The E.U. initiated a departure from the use of conventional cages in Union Council Directive 1999/74/EU designating a ban on conventional cages effective January 1st 2012, allowing a 13-year transition period to alternative systems. Initially there was a move to enriched colony modules and then with additional restrictions and consumer demands, to aviaries and floor systems. This trend was evident in the U.S. approximately a decade later. Initially California Proposition #2 and subsequent rules placed restraints on confined housing. This was followed by the successive announcements by QSRs and retailers in 2016 disallowing conventional cages and will extend forward with the presumed passage of California Proposition #12 of 2018.

With the imperative imposed by retailers, QSRs and food service companies to transition from cages by the early to mid-2020s, aviaries provide a practical and cost-effective alternative for U.S. producers operating in-line complexes. The question arises as to the “acceptability” of different configurations with an emphasis on access from the modules to litter. Early versions of aviaries could be regarded as enriched colonies with release of flocks at the discretion of the manager. Confinement of hens by lockable doors on the front of modules are no longer acceptable in Germany. A prominent U.S. retail chain has expressed disapproval of systems which do not allow unrestricted access to the litter area between and beneath rows of modules.

The Verein fur Kontrollierte Alternative Tierhaltungsformen, eV (KAT) of Germany, functioning as the principal accreditation and certification agency has ruled on configuration of aviary modules. The Agency will no longer certify systems with movable front grids (doors) either manual or mechanized, which could confine laying flocks to the tiers of aviaries. Lockable front doors (grids) must be sealed open after the early post-transfer acclimation (training) period, with no ability for mechanical closure to confine flocks. KAT specifically disqualifies combination systems which could be operated as either an enriched colony with confinement or as an aviary, to allow access to litter by opening doors. The KAT objection to combination systems extends beyond basic operation with respect to doors and the potential for confinement. Their philosophy incorporates the perception of “openness” and freedom of hens to move freely in horizontal and vertical planes using the cube volume of their house. Farms or complexes with houses equipped with both unapproved and approved aviaries in adjacent houses at the same location will not be certified under the KAT program.

The implication for U.S. producers is self-evident. Unlike Las Vegas what happens in the E.U. with respect to welfare does not necessarily stay there.  Installation of an aviary system allowing for other than complete and unrestricted access will in all probability be unacceptable to major chains and QSRs and the certifying agencies following the precedents established in the E.U. Future compliance and market acceptability are especially important considerations going forward as the industry resumes the transition from housing in conventional cages to aviary systems. Selection from among available alternative aviary designs will obviously determine future positioning of eggs and products in the marketplace and will influence the return on capital invested in either conversions or new complexes.