Egging on better production systems towards public health

August 5, 2019

“Are eggs healthy,” is an oft-asked question. But the question we don’t often hear is, how hygienic is egg production, what effect does this have on the health of those working in such facilities and the possible impact of such a food system on the end-consumer.

At a time when the world is worried about the spread of zoonotic diseases, where diseases jump from animal to humans due to proximity and unhygienic industrial practices, where our food comes from ought to concern us.

The majority of India’s eggs (approximately 80 per cent) are produced in an intensive confinement system called battery cages, also known as conventional cages or California cages. They are barren wire mesh cages used to confine egg laying hens and the “battery” label comes from the repeat arrangement of cages placed side by side.

A typical egg farm contains thousands of cages, lined in multiple rows, stacked 3-5 tiers high; with each cage crowded with as many as 6-10 birds. These cages are placed in a barn, elevated from the ground, so faecal matter from the birds is collected on the ground below. Often, the waste accumulates below the cages for the entire duration of the birds’ lives, which is anywhere between 52 and 72 weeks.

Overcrowding, a health hazard

Due to overcrowding, the absence of waste management and rows and rows of mesh cages that are hard to clean, a battery cage facility is not just a hazard to the hens confined in them but also a health hazard affecting people working in these “farms”, neighbourhoods around them and consumers who have produce from these farms. Studies have revealed the severe health implications for those living in the vicinity of these production systems.

The battery cage systems are used so more animals are confined to produce more eggs.

The waste from such factory farms contaminates water sources with excess nutrients, pathogens, veterinary pharmaceuticals, antibiotics, heavy metals, and hormones — releasing ammonia, hydrogen sulphide, aromatic organic compounds, bio-aerosols, and particulate matter into the air and exposing the community to pathogens and chemical contamination through soil, water, and air pollution.

The CSIR-National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), in 2017, carried out a study on poultry farms in India. Apart from publishing alarming findings of the pollution caused by battery cage facilities, the report observed that poultry workers and local residents living in or around poultry farms are more prone to bacterial and viral infections and chronic respiratory issues.

Incidence of zoonotic diseases such as infection from Salmonella, E. coli and Avian influenza are associated with battery cage systems. In fact, the incidence of salmonella is found to be greater in caged systems than in cage-free systems.

Infectious disease agents

A joint consultation of the World Health Organization (WHO), Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO), and World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) noted that the sheer number of intense contacts between birds and increasing flock density spreads and amplifies diseases. Put simply, crowding birds in a small space results in the increased burden of infectious disease agents, leading to public health problems.

What’s more? Antimicrobial resistant organisms pass on resistant strains to the community through contamination of resources in contact with animal waste. And in battery cage systems, waste lies in mounds, in open air.

Factory farming is a global concern from the standpoint of animal welfare, food security, environment and public health. Many countries, including all of the European Union, New Zealand and many States in the US, have phased out battery cages. While the world is waking up to the negative impact of battery cages, India’s poultry industry seems to turn a blind eye to the welfare of all stakeholders for the profitability of a few. Workers in such battery caged facilities pay the price for wilful neglect with their health. Not just inhalation problems, as described earlier, but they are also exposed to long-term health impact if they have to wade barefoot through piles of hen faeces.

There are ongoing cases in the Indian courts on the issue, even as ethical consumers seek out humane options. But given the ugly production truths of the egg industry, urban consumers need to demand better practices, in the overall interest of public health.