Cracks in the Egg Industry

About 75 percent of U.S. egg-laying flocks are denied feed to force molting, raising production. (Marc Kaufman - The Washington Post)

By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 30, 2000; Page A01

SACRAMENTO For years, most egg farmers in the United States have routinely extended the egg-laying lives of their chickens by withholding feed from the birds until they lose a quarter of their weight.

That process--called induced or forced molting--generally continues until the chickens shed their feathers, usually after five to 14 days. When food is restored, the birds are rejuvenated and lay bigger and stronger eggs than before.

To the egg industry, the practice is a logical and necessary extention of its efforts to increase productivity and scientifically manage its flocks. About 75 percent of egg-laying flocks undergo induced molting, and some more than once.

But increasingly, health researchers, animal rights activists and now legislators are challenging the practice.

Some see forced molting as inhumane, saying it amounts to intentional starvation. And others are pointing to research linking the stress of forced molting with an increased likelihood that people will get sick from salmonella by eating eggs.

When hens are denied food, the researchers have found, their immune systems become weakened, leaving them more vulnerable to the salmonella bacteria. The birds then might be more likely to pass the infection to people through their eggs.

The practice of forced molting has been the subject of a little-known but passionate dispute for several years. But it has begun to draw increased attention. This week, for example, the state Assembly in California--the nation's third-leading egg-producing state--will hold a public hearing on forced molting as it considers the nation's first proposed legislation to ban the practice.

"To me, this is a very significant public health issue," said Assemblyman Ted Lempert, a Palo Alto Democrat who sponsored the bill. "I was first shocked by the practice because of the horrible cruelty, but the health issues really demand attention."

But egg farmers say they are being misunderstood and unfairly maligned. Birds fast and molt naturally, they say, and farmers are simply manipulating that process to produce more and better eggs, such as the extra large and jumbo eggs consumers seem to prefer.

And the link to salmonella, they say, remains far from proven. What's more, with salmonella cases declining in California and nationwide--down more than 33 percent across the nation from 1996 to 1998--they say their industry has been working hard and successfully to reduce its contribution to that disease.

"We feel wounded," said Paul Bahan, a major California egg producer and member of an industry animal welfare committee. "We feel like we're doing a phenomenal job producing a wonderful product at a wonderful price, but we're being presented as monsters."

Egg producers also say induced molting is essential to maintaining their profitability, which is already threatened by a national oversupply of eggs. Industry officials estimate that without the molts, their eggs would cost at least 4 cents more per dozen, which would be passed on to consumers.

"We are dealing here with a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of farm animals," said Donald Bell of the University of California at Riverside, who is often described as the driving force behind induced molting.

"When man domesticated animals, it was inevitable there would be some negative aspects for those animals," he said. "But it's only because of that domestication--and now the scientific approach we use to raising animals--that we can feed the world. Do people really want that to stop?"

Because of strong objections by the egg industry, few expect the Lempert bill will pass this year, and it may not even get out of the generally pro-farmer Agriculture Committee.

But anti-molting activists have also petitioned the federal government to ban forced molting nationally and are starting to pressure fast food chains to not buy force-molted eggs. The egg industry understands it is facing a public relations as well as scientific problem.

Adding to their difficulties, experts with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a scientific advisory committee appointed by the United Egg Producers (UEP), the largest industry group, have voiced concerns about the way many farmers conduct induced moltings.

In a letter to activists who in 1998 petitioned the government to ban forced molting, an official with the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service wrote that while the agency did not have authority to regulate the practice, it "is encouraging poultry and egg producers to eliminate forced molting practices and adopt alternatives that reduce public health risks."

In addition, the chairman of the advisory committee of scientists that studied animal welfare for the industry last year concluded that farmers need to find new ways to induce their molts. In a letter to the legislative committee taking up Lempert's bill, Jeffrey D. Armstrong, of Purdue University, wrote that "the welfare of the hen is compromised when feed withdrawal or restriction is used to induce a molt."

Armstrong opposes Lempert's bill, saying the industry needs time to find alternative ways to force a molt. But because of his committee's conclusions, Armstrong said, "I have a lot of colleagues mad at me because they don't think there's anything wrong with removing food for 14 days."

Farmers have long known that hens lay more and bigger eggs after their natural annual molt. In the 1950s and '60s, as egg farming became increasingly industrialized, they began to experiment with commercial methods to force their birds to molt on demand and at the same time. The most effective method was to deny the birds food, and sometimes water, for up to 14 days.

What egg producers view as a rational system for producing more eggs more cheaply, however, some animal rights activists see as cruel and inhumane treatment of defenseless animals.

Teri Barnato is national director of the Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights, one of several groups leading the campaign against forced molting. Her group initially approached Lempert's office about introducing a bill on forced molting, which was banned in Europe in 1987.

"Our country is way behind many others in terms of protecting the welfare of farm animals, and we think forced molting shows that very painfully," Barnato said.

But the issue would not have gone as far if the practice had not also been implicated in the spread of the salmonella bacteria in hens and eggs.

Following a surprisingly sharp rise in human salmonella cases in the mid-1980s, researchers and government agencies began to study how and why it was spreading. They found that 1 in 20,000 eggs was infected with salmonella, and that undercooked, infected eggs were a major source of the spread of the disease. (Federal statistics show salmonella in eggs was associated with 28,644 illnesses and 79 deaths from 1985 to 1998.) Several studies concluded that there was also a link between the stress of forced molting of hens and salmonella in them and their eggs.

Many in the egg industry do not accept this conclusion and say they do not see any connection between induced molting and salmonella. The federal government has been quiet on the issue, and forced molting was not raised as a concern in the administration's recent action plan for reducing salmonella in eggs.

But research in the mid-1990s by Peter Holt of the USDA's Agricultural Research Service has found that food withdrawal lowers the immune systems of hens and makes them more susceptible to salmonella. "We saw that [salmonella] infections were more severe in the molted birds, that there was more intestinal inflammation, that the birds excreted more salmonella and they transmitted it more readily to other molted birds," Holt said. But he cautioned that his research was in the laboratory rather than the field, and said the USDA had asked him in December to do more studies.

While the USDA has avoided taking a position on forced molting, its Food Safety and Inspection Service has reached some conclusions. In a 1998 draft report released to United Poultry Concerns of Machipongo, Va., under a freedom of information request, the service estimated that eliminating forced molting would reduce illness from salmonella by about 2 percent.

With concerns growing about molting-related salmonella and animal welfare issues, the industry has been working to modify farm practices, especially cutting back on the length of food withdrawal. The scientific advisory committee convened by the UEP is expected to present its report soon, and it will contain recommendations on molting practices and other issues, such as the size of hens' cages.

"Ultimately, it's the science that will dictate what we do," said Al Pope, president of the industry group. "We would not like to eliminate [induced molting] because it has so many benefits, but we may not have much choice."

© 2000 The Washington Post Company

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