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Speaking at the recent U.K. Egg and Poultry Industry Conference, Dr. Nigel Gibbens, CBE, Chief Veterinary Officer of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) (equivalent to USDA), questioned the  move to adopt free-range management which represents over 50 percent of U.K. egg production.  In 2012, conventional cages were banned in the E.U.  The U.K. and to a lesser extent Germany, adopted the enriched colony module as an alternative to conventional (“barren”) cages to achieve compliance by January 12, 2012. 

Following trends in E.U. nations and the subsequent commitments in the U.S. by members of the FMI, NRA and NCCR to convert to cage-free production by 2025, there are questions as to the safety and desirability of maintaining flocks outside houses either under free-range (22 square foot per hen) or on pasture (100 square foot per hen).

At issue is the inevitability of exposure to avian influenza.  Migratory waterfowl were responsible for introduction of both LPAI and HPAI strains H5 and H7 over successive years in the E.U. and in the U.S.

Dr. Gibbens emphasized the “conflict between the public’s demand for ethical eggs from free-range hens and the need to protect flocks from avian influenza.”  He opined, “Hens left outside are a greater risk of being infected by wild birds carrying a disease.” In a subsequent interview with a leading U.K. agricultural periodical, Dr. Gibbens noted, “free-range farms are also at higher risk from other diseases based on their exposure.”

During the 2016 and 2017 AI outbreaks in the U.K., DEFRA issued “”confinement orders” which obliged producers in an area where AI had been diagnosed to confine flocks to barns.  Each year the period of risk is extended and the E.U. has lengthened the period of confinement from 12 to 16 weeks without flocks losing their “free-range” status.

The remarks by Dr. Gibbens, based on sound epidemiology and experience evoked considerable negative reaction from welfare organizations in addition to some members of the UK veterinary profession.  He was accused of “brazen endorsement” of the practice of keeping hens in cages which deprive them of “natural behavior”. Based on reports of his address to the Industry Conference this is a biased characterization of his message.

(SMS 1,993-17 December 7th 2017)