Welfare standards for laying hens

Andrew Butterworth

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter in a book


Animal welfare is considered by many consumers to be an important attribute of the food that they eat, and there is an implicit assumption that, if retailers sell eggs or poultry, then the food has been produced after taking into account the welfare of the animals. However, these assumptions are not always borne out by the reality of farming systems, and consumers have expressed concern for laying hen welfare at a higher level than their concerns regarding, for example, beef cattle (European Commission, 2005).
‘Welfare’ has had a number of definitions, ranging from those with a focus on physiological factors (McGlone, 1993), definitions based around subjective feelings (Dawkins, 1990) and definitions based on the capacity for ‘coping’. In this case, coping refers to the animals’ response to situations in which high levels of well-being are possible – to situations in which the animals’ life is questionably worth living (Farm Animal Welfare Council, 2009). Health is often intertwined with welfare in the phrase ‘health and welfare’, and it is very likely that provision of conditions, which can provide ‘good health’, would be considered a prerequisite for ‘good welfare’ (Rushen, 2003).
Laying hens are farmed in many different systems in the world. In the European Union (EU), Council Directive 1999/74/EC categorizes the common laying hen systems into three groups: alternative systems, unenriched cage systems and enriched cage systems. To discuss laying hen standards, it is necessary to discuss standards for particular systems – as is has proved to be virtually impossible to make a ‘one standard fits all’ scheme for laying hens because of the diversity of systems.
The category ‘alternative systems’ covers a wide range of systems, ranging from very simple single-level systems to multilevel aviaries with or without free-range facilities, and is used to refer to systems that are not ‘conventional cages’. A ‘cage system’ is operated without the human carers entering the actual enclosure containing the birds and, globally, cages range from single cages containing 3, 4 or 5 birds, arranged in rows or tiers, to the ‘enriched cage’ or ‘furnished cage’ now required in the EU.
To give the consumer confidence in laying hen production, many countries have adopted legislative requirements for cage and non-cage system specifications and, in addition to legal requirements, many countries have also adopted industry-led ‘quality assurance’ (QA) standards, usually implemented through farm assurance schemes – in which the producer is periodically inspected to check compliance of the farm against the ‘standard’. This farm assurance overlying legal requirements is now the basis of much of the ‘regulation’ of laying hen production in the EU, and in some other parts of the world, including Australasia, the United States and Canada. In the United Kingdom and Europe, it was the more integrated animal industries (dairy, eggs, pig meat, poultry) which were the first to adopt quality assurance standards, which included aspects regarding animal welfare, and QA in these sectors has been arguably very successful in terms of industry penetration – partially because these industries are tightly vertically integrated, allowing adoption of a ‘standards’ approach through and across companies. The EU Council Directive 1999/74/EC on the Welfare of Laying Hens was implemented on 1 January 2012 and required the adoption of enriched or colony cages (‘colony’ cages in the United Kingdom house between 40 and 80 birds) and the enriched cages have more space and height than the conventional cages they replaced, a nesting area, a scratching area and perches. Picking the United Kingdom as an example, it is perhaps worthwhile to examine how the ‘commercial farm assurance standards’ system works for laying hens.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationAchieving sustainable production of eggs
Place of PublicationCambridge
PublisherBurleigh Dodds Science Publishing
Pages1 -14
Number of pages14
ISBN (Print)9781786760807
Publication statusPublished - 28 Feb 2017


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