Poultry Digital - May 2018

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Sustainability: The challenge of ranking hen housing systems Choosing the best system isn't easy T o date, decisions to move to cage-free egg production have been largely consumer and activist driven, espe- cially in Europe. But in order to make a well-informed, science-based decision all possible parameters should be assessed, including hen welfare, environmental impact, egg quality and safety, worker health and safety and economics. How then do we choose the best production system, especial- ly when animal welfare under each system both aligns and conflicts with sustainability goals? What do we mean by sustainability? With retailers emphasising sustainability as central to gaining public trust and licence to operate, demand for sustainably produced products has increased. But what does "sustainably produced" really mean? In animal production, it has come to focus on welfare more than other key considerations. Joy Mench, professor emeritus in the Department of Animal Science at the University of California, Davis, pointed out the flaws in this perception in an interview at the International Egg Commission conference in Bruges, Belgium, in September 2017. While animal welfare is certainly an important part of sustainable animal agriculture, she said, the challenge is to balance it out with the other key considerations, including food security and affordability, food quality and safety, the environment and the health and economic security of workers in the industry. Another important aspect of sustainability people often fail to consider is the purchasing preferences of consumers. "You can produce products as sustainably as possible from the perspectives of economic efficiency, worker health and safety, the environment and animal welfare," said Mench, "but if consumers and customers won't purchase those products then the system is not sustainable in the sense that the producer cannot make a profit." Mench was part of a team conducting research for the Co- alition for Sustainable Egg Supply in the United States who examined three different housing systems (cage-free aviary, enriched colony and conventional cage) on a single farm. Mench and the team evaluated and compared each system in terms of various sustainability targets: animal health and wellbeing; environmental impact; food safety; worker health and safety; and food affordability. Her report found that different hen production systems entailed different risks with regards to these five sustainability areas. For instance, under aviary and enriched-colony systems animal welfare conditions were mixed: while the team saw improvements in terms of behaviour, tibia and humerus strength and feather condition, there was also a marked increase in cannibalism and aggression, as well as keel-bone damage as a result. And while ammonia emissions declined under the enriched-colony system, indoor air quality and par- ticulate matter emissions increased in the aviary system. Perhaps the most impacted area was food affordability, as both the aviary and enriched colony systems led to increases in pullet costs, labour costs, capital costs and even feed costs (aviary only). Words Melanie Epp Sustainability: The challenge of ranking hen housing systems FEATURE 12

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