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EU explores ending the cage age

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Study says switching to cage-free is possible but only with appropriate supporting measures.

Between 2018 and 2020, 1.4 million European Union citizens signed an “End the Cage Age” petition, which aimed to end cage housing for farm animals in Europe. In response to this citizens’ initiative, the European Parliament requested a study by Utrecht University researchers on the possibilities to end cage housing. This week, scientists are presenting their report “End the Cage Age – Looking for Alternatives” to the European Parliament.

In the report, behavioral biologists, animal scientists, veterinarians and ethicists from Utrecht University's Faculty of Veterinary Medicine analyzed the available scientific literature on alternatives to cage housing.

Bas Rodenburg, professor of animal welfare at Utrecht University, said the study focused on laying hens and pigs, “because these are the species that are kept in the largest numbers, and cage-free alternatives are already available or in development for them."

For other species - such as dairy and veal calves and rabbits – the researchers give a brief overview of the current situation and possibilities.

Foraging, rooting and pecking

According to Rodenberg, the report shows that ending cage housing has positive effects on the behavior and welfare of animals.

"This is because animals in cage-free alternatives can exhibit their natural behavior,” he explained. “Chickens and pigs are omnivores; they are normally foraging, rooting and pecking all day long. This behavior is essential for these animals, but they need materials to rummage around in, such as sand, straw, or wood shavings. That is difficult or impossible to achieve in cages."

Regarding sustainability, no large differences in environmental, social, and economic impact between cage housing and cage-free alternatives were found in studies published to date.

However, the study did find that alternatives do pose new risks. For example, there is a higher risk of infectious diseases and social unrest, like feather pecking. In fact, the report said both systems have pros and cons in terms of animal welfare.

The report shared that furnished cage systems performed better regarding mortality, parasitic disease, bone fractures during lay, feather pecking and cannibalism, and crowding. Non-cage systems, on the other hand performed better regarding osteoporosis, inability to perform foraging, and inability to perform dust bathing. Free-range systems had a lower risk of feather pecking and cannibalism compared to indoor systems, as well as fewer bone fractures at depopulation. However, the risk of parasitic disease is higher in free-range systems

To successfully switch to cage-free alternatives, farmers must therefore be trained and learn to work with the new systems, the report noted.

For example, the study found that free-farrowing and multi-suckling hog production systems offer clear advantages over farrowing crates for both sow and piglets in terms of behavioral freedom, bonding with and learning from the sow, and proper development of social behavior. However, the report emphasized that farmers and farm workers must pay attention to prevent crushing and piglet savaging in the alternative systems.

For other species, like mink or geese and ducks for the production of foie gras, there is no cage-free alternative, the report said. As such, the proposed alternative would therefore be a ban on production and a European import ban.

Achieving cage-free

The study showed that the switch to cage-free alternatives is possible, but how this can actually be achieved remains the question.

"It has to be made attractive for farmers to make the switch," said Rodenburg. "The required investments must result in added value for their products. And consumers must be prepared to pay a little more for this, so awareness is also needed among this group."

In the short term, this calls for financial measures such as subsidies for new welfare-friendly systems and welfare labels on products, enabling consumers to shop more consciously. In the longer term, legislation could prohibit certain types of cage housing.

"One of our most important recommendations is to involve all stakeholders in the process, so they can design the new and improved livestock farming together."

To view the full report, click here.

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