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New Report on the Welfare Differences Between Cage and Cage-Free Housing

Over the last two years, animal welfare organizations successfully secured pledges from major restaurants and grocers to eliminate battery cages from their supply chains, which are collectively expected to bring cage-free housing from ~13% of the domestic egg supply to ~70% when fully implemented. We have been the largest funder of these campaigns.

In our blog post announcing our support for these campaigns, we claimed that cage-free systems were much better than battery cages for hen welfare, based on initial research conducted by Lewis Bollard, our program officer for farm animal welfare. Lewis briefly argued against a memorandum by animal rights group Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) which claimed the opposite. This disagreement was further explored in a series of comments written by Lewis and Wayne Hsiung of DxE.

We left that discussion unsatisfied with our knowledge about the evidence on hen welfare in different housing systems, and I (Ajeya Cotra) conducted a more thorough investigation – the full report can be found here. My findings were, in short:

  • Cage-free housing will provide hens with increased ability to perform behaviors like stretching and walking, laying eggs in nestboxes, and perching at night. Our conversations with animal welfare scientists suggested that these behaviors are important to hen welfare, and in the handful of specific experiments we reviewed, hens were willing to pay substantial-seeming costs for the opportunity to perform these behaviors. However, our initial look at these experiments was limited in depth and we aren’t confident about their quality.
  • It seems likely that there will be a “transition cost” of increased mortality when U.S. farms initially transition into cage-free housing. Researchers told us that these systems are more difficult to maintain well, and our understanding is that mortality from disease and injury will likely be abnormally high while farmers learn to manage the new systems. Other things being equal, farmers have substantial incentive to reduce high mortality rates, because mortality reduces the cost-efficiency of egg production. However, we are unsure how far this effect will push, or how long that process may take.
  • Post-transition, mortality rates will likely continue to be more variable in cage-free systems than in battery cages. Our best guess is that mortality in aviaries will be roughly similar to cages in the long run, but this read of the evidence depends on particular judgment calls described in more detail here. In particular, mortality in aviaries would look significantly worse if we had chosen to give extra weight to a short-term U.S. experimental study Karcher et al 2014 (which we expect to be less representative of long-run outcomes than this 2013 survey of U.S. farms and a this meta-analysis from the U.K., which gathered data from cage-free systems that had been in place for a longer period of time).
  • The literature doesn’t seem to offer any conclusive method to morally weigh changes in behavioral prospects and changes in disease or injury risk in a unified quantitative framework. Animal welfare scientists from the U.K. and Canada expressed the intuition that cage-free housing was substantially better for hen welfare all things considered, while scientists from the U.S. tended to believe furnished (but not battery) cages were best for animal welfare. Our impression is that compared with U.K. and Canadian scientists, U.S. animal welfare scientists tend to emphasize “welfare” criteria that align with production metrics over hen subjective well-being, and are more often funded by industry interests.

In light of this new investigation, we believe we were overconfident in our unqualified initial statement that “Cage-free systems… [are] much better than cages.” In particular, we had put substantial weight on a pre-existing quantitative assessment that ranked hen housing systems on a 0-10 welfare scale; we are now much more skeptical of that paper’s methodology. Additionally, we now think it is likely that mortality rates in aviaries will be higher than in cages in the years immediately after farmers transition to cage-free production, though we expect this initially-high mortality to decline significantly as farmers follow profit incentives to improve management practices and reduce mortality to roughly the levels currently seen in commercial cage-free farms in the US and the UK. We continue to believe our grants to accelerate the adoption of cage-free systems were net-beneficial for layer hens, but we feel we made a mistake by not conducting a more thorough review of the research on this topic earlier.

In addition, it seems clear to us that cage-free systems have much higher welfare potential than battery cage systems – that is, the theoretical highest-welfare hen housing system would not contain cages. Though we stand by our bottom line, we appreciate the pushback from Direct Action Everywhere for prompting us to look more closely at the evidence base.

For more details, read the full report here.


If the ultimate aim is to dismantle the animal agriculture system-as OPP funded groups claimed at the 2017 National Animal Rights Conference- why is this article discussing farmers’ long term profit incentives? Will you provide an explanation as to how improved welfare contributes to overcoming the industrial animal agriculture system?

Our aim is to improve farm animal wellbeing, and reduce animal suffering, by as much as possible. Understanding farmers’ profit incentives allows us to predict how the animal agriculture system is likely to respond to reforms promoted by our grantees. This helps us set strategies designed to improve animal wellbeing and reduce suffering.

Thank you for writing this post. I ask that you watch this video about OPP supported Animal Charity Evaluators that SHowing Animals Respect and Kindness has released: OPP has been wasting millions of dollars supporting groups that do bad science, as you exposed here. We sincerely hope that someone in OPP is willing to take a hard look at what has been going on and work to fix it. Please contact us and let’s talk about it. [email protected]

Thanks Stuart for sharing this and for emailing it to us as well. We reviewed the video and don’t find its claims credible.

Please tell me exactly what you don’t find credible, as no one has countered what we have said, and everything still stands. I was under the impression from this blog post that OPP actually took criticism seriously, but if that is not the case, just let us know. You of course can ignore the problems, but it doesn’t change the fact that they exist. And that goes against everything Effective Altruism is supposed to stand for.

In both form (dramatic voice) and content, the video presents itself more like a desperate attempt to throw dirt at ACE than an invitation for dialogue. If I am wrong and your intention was the latter, try formulating your criticism objectively instead of first presenting a conclusion (or should I say: accusation?) and trying as hard as possible to justify this conclusion afterwards. This will spare you the frustration of people not wanting to engage with you because they don’t consider you interested in dialogue. Btw, a recent article by Mr Nathan also raised the (few) objective arguments from your video, to which ACE responded here:

With all due respect, you just committed the act you accuse SHARK of, as there’s no substance to what you are saying, just an attack. If you watch the video again, you will see we present evidence for all our claims, and no one has yet disproven anything we stated as fact. I find that quite telling, and our video stands. We spent many hours trying to work with ACE, but to no avail. As for their response, they ignored the major conflicts of interest we exposed in our video. We wrote a reply to them which I will post following this one. I want you to understand why we are so passionate about this; OPP, perhaps not intentionally, is creating havoc in the animal protection movement. We believe your campaigns on so-called broiler chickens and going to set back efforts to save chickens for years to come, and, as your own blog exposed, the cage free issue was based on bad data. I would love to talk to you more about this, but we can’t seem to get past this wall of denial that’s been built up around these issues. And guess what? We are not looking for money from you. That’s what makes us different from those groups who do want your money to the point that they change their beliefs to please you. Does that not that disturb you at all? Is there not someone within in OPP care about this? In any event, we will continue to expose groups like ACE because we believe they are hurting animals. I’ll forward you our next video when it comes out that will present even more shocking conflicts of interest. You have our contact info. We are here ready to have a real conversation IF you are willing to actually do that.

SHARK’s reply to ACE: SHARK’s video exposing Animal Charity Evaluators (ACE): ACE’s response: Showing Animals Respect and Kindness (SHARK) recently released a video exposing Animal Charity Evaluators (ACE). ACE issued a response, one that ignored the major points of our video. Because we believe that there are serious ramifications to what ACE does, including that innumerable animal lives are at stake, we are continuing this discussion 1. ACE calls Ducks Unlimited (DU), a pro-hunting group that is responsible for slaughtering millions of animals, “General Animal Welfare” and “Wild Animal Rescue and Shelter.” That they did this is undeniable. For ACE to say they rejected DU while leaving their name on their “All Charity Reviews” webpage, and therefore misleading people into thinking DU is a pro-animal group, is ludicrous. If we can’t trust ACE to do something as simple as to check and see if a group they are considering to review is anti-animal, why would we trust anything they put out? Our point that ACE didn’t have the basic intelligence to do a simple Google search stands, and it shows that ACE’s science and methods are extraordinarily flawed. Put it this way…how did one of the leading pro-hunting groups in our nation make ACE’s “considered” list instead of one of the tens of thousands of animal groups out there? We believe ACE padded the number of groups they claim to have reviewed in order to make it appear that they were working with a large amount of organizations, when the reality is they focused on their pre-selected groups. 2. ACE ignored that they put misleading information on their Guidestar page. In ACE’s response they state that they have a ”…combined total of over 100 reviews,” while on Guidestar they wrote that, in 2016 alone, they had, “Conducted evaluations of over 300 animal charities.” Such a vast discrepancy can’t be written off as a mistake. Guidestar is a site used by the public to gauge the worth of non-profits. By putting false information on Guidestar, ACE has shown a willingness to deceive the public about their work. This is a common theme we have found about ACE. 3. ACE completely ignored the fact that Nick Cooney, whose groups profit the most from ACE’s recommendations, holds an official position with ACE, and that the committee Cooney is on gave money to Mercy for Animals, the group he personally profits from as it’s Executive Vice-President. This is unethical and indefensible. ACE must have realized that because, even though this was one of the major issues we exposed, they specifically avoided it completely. Again, when ACE says they acknowledge conflicts of interest, it doesn’t negate unethical activity, it confirms it. 4. Since the release of our video we have discovered another serious conflict of interest between ACE and their recommended groups that we will expose in the near future. The bottom line is, ACE is swollen with conflicts of interest between its personnel and board members and the groups they recommend. As there are potentially millions of dollars in donations at stake, this is serious and we contend that it may represent consumer fraud. 5. ACE says they have conducted 48 “comprehensive reviews” while their website states only 21. In their last letter to us, which we have published online, they state that “we have reviewed some organizations more than once” and that “Some organizations have disbanded and others asked us not to publish our review.” Therefore, 48 “comprehensive reviews” is a misleading and useless number, as many of those are the same group or a group that doesn’t exist. ACE’s website says they have 21 comprehensive reviews and we believe that is the only number that has any merit to use. Our point was that ACE focused on a small selection of favored groups, a majority of which have conflicts of interests that we know about (and there may be more). That ACE spent resources and time reviewing some of those handpicked groups more than once, instead of performing reviews for other non-favored groups, shows how hyper-focused they are on advocating for those groups. The point that ACE gives veto power over reviews being made public is critically important. By doing so, ACE proves that they are not an objective evaluator but instead one that is subservient to the businesses they claim to review. We should look at ACE as being a biased industry representative group, one that promotes its members financial interests, rather than an evaluator meant to inform the public on the best way for them to donate their money. Why did SHARK release our video exposing ACE? Because we believe what ACE is doing is dangerous and unethical. In our opinion, ACE is going to hurt far more animals than they think they can help by forcing those who want recommendations (and the financial incentives that come with it) to conform to their ideology. That acquiescence to ACE’s will may have a devastating effect on innovation and creativity. It also means that billions of animals who suffer and die excruciating deaths through fishing, hunting, laboratory experiments, etc… are going to be ignored because ACE doesn’t consider their lives to be as worthy of help as the lives they chose to focus on. Don’t forget that the most animals killed by far are fish. ACE conveniently disregards fish because the plight of fish doesn’t conform to the program ACE wants to promote. And that’s the heart of ACE’s problem; in our opinion, it’s not about ACE making their ideology fit the science, but making the science fit their ideology. We shouldn’t even justify what ACE is doing by calling it “science.” It is not. What they do fails the basic fundamentals of what science demands and is political propaganda at best. We will have more on that in the future as well. As someone who has been fighting hard for animals for nearly 30 years I can tell you that I have seen many scams and fads during my time, with entire highways to hell paved with supposed good intentions. In my opinion, what ACE represents is just the latest in a long line of terminally flawed ideologies that will eventually collapse when donors realize how much money they’ve wasted and how little effect, if any, it has had on saving animal lives. Tragically, I think ACE will do a lot of damage before that time comes, which is why it is so necessary to speak out against them. SHARK is a group that fights hard for animals. We don’t sit around all day in offices thinking about what others can do to help animals, we go out and help animals, just as many hard working groups do. Our people have been held at gun point, shot at, beaten and deliberately hit with a car. On more than one occasion our own blood, escaping from injuries received on the frontlines, has mixed with the blood of a wounded animal held in our arms. We take fighting for animals seriously and we don’t appreciate it when groups engage in deception to cloud the eyes of good people who want to support the cause of helping animals. Perhaps ACE thought they were being clever when they created an evaluation group to promote friends and favored organizations, but it’s not honest and it damages all the good, hard working groups out there - and ultimately that hurts the animals. We again challenge ACE to debate this issues openly and publicly. We do not fear standing up for our beliefs and what we say. Now we will see if ACE feels the same way.

First of all, I have to disappoint your enthusiasm: I am in no way affiliated with the Open Philanthropy Project, so naturally you can’t consider my response a response from them. I’m just some guy excited about reducing animal suffering (including that of humans) who voices his private opinion. You write that you provided all the evidence for your claims in the video, however, you did not. For example, you note that all of ACE’s top charities are affiliated with Nick Cooney (I don’t think that is true, for example your argument about Animal Equality is a stretch, but that’s beside the point). From there, you jump to the conclusion that that is because ACE was founded specifically to promote Nick Cooney (who, you assume, without presenting any evidence, is only in it for the money). Nobody who understands anything about rational thinking can claim that this is the only possible (or even the most plausible) causal connection. I can’t speak for ACE, but let me propose one of the many causal mechanism that, at least in my opinion, are much more plausible: MFA and THL appeal to ACE, because the organisations share the same values as the evaluator – let’s call them efficiency and measurability. Now, you may not agree with these values, and from your post above I conclude that you indeed don’t (for example, effective altruists don’t measure the value of activism by the personal sacrifices activists make, but rather, for example, by the number of animals helped). This is absolutely legitimate. The question is, why don’t you criticize these values, instead of making unfounded accusations? I don’t know why you share a link to a site where your whole email exchange with ACE is available, as this makes the motivation behind your video seem even more sinister. In part, because you did not include ACE’s responses to your accusations, thus preventing the viewers to form their own opinions. But also, because Steve Hindi acknowledges in his very first e-mail to ACE that the recommendation of top charities associated with Nick Cooney does not prove illegitimate purposes behind the foundation of ACE. Rather, in his opinion, ACE is heavily influenced by Nick Cooney’s way of thinking. And in his second email he writes: “It​ ​also​ ​possible,​ ​and​ ​we believe​ ​probable,​ ​that​ ​ACE​ ​was​ ​designed​ ​from​ ​the​ ​start​ ​to​ ​be​ ​a​ ​front​ ​group​ ​to​ ​funnel​ ​donations only​ ​to​ ​pre-selected​ ​organizations”- “Possible”, “probable”, but unlike you in your post here, Steve Hindi doesn’t falsely claim that you have any “evidence” for it. The sad thing about all of this is that we could have a legitimate discussion about conflicts of interest at ACE. You pointed out that the current three top rated charities are affiliated with Nick Cooney, and, maybe more convincingly, how this disclosure page: has many standout charities on it. From there, you could have sorberly explained why this is problematic. This might even, as criticism often does, have led to ACE becoming to a better organisation. Instead, you chose to embed these information in a conspiracy theory, spiced with some ridiculous but dramatic straw men (Ducks Unlimited, etc…), whose only purpose seems to be to through dirt at ACE. Can you really blame OPP for not wanting to engage with you on these terms? The only reason I spend so much time answering you is because I think that, in spite of everything, you are motivated by the right reasons, i.e. helping animals. Note how that attitude differs from your’s, who always seems to assume the worst in other people, even though you don’t have much reason to do so.

My response was definitely meant for OPP and if that became muddled, I apologize. On your point about Ducks Unlimited, that was a perfect example of how little care to detail ACE has. They were just padding groups to make it appear as if they were reviewing many groups when they weren’t, and they didn’t even do a simple Google search to see what the group was. Then they put false info on Guidestar to further mislead people. It’s amazing how this disturbing fact never gets questioned. You’re reading things into the video that we did not say. For instance, we don’t say Ace was founded to “specifically to promote Nick Cooney,” or that he is in it for the money. We also say “potential” because we don’t have access to ACE emails and documents which may offer definitive proof. However, the evidence of unethical behavior is so overwhelming that it cannot be ignored. Which raises the question of why OPP is ignoring it. I am giving Ms. Tuna the benefit of the doubt, that all her intentions are good and that she has not been made aware of how OPP is staining its name by being associated with such unethical activity. That’s why I have been responding here and emailing OPP, as I want to give them the chance to understand what is happening. I will continue to try to reach out to her and, hopefully, she will be just as upset as we are. It is also our hope that some law enforcement agency will investigate ACE. At that point we will learn even more about what they are doing and perhaps even why OPP seems just fine with financially supporting such an unethical operation.

lol. On what grounds do you want to sue them? The first amendment gives every organization the right to recommend charities according to their own criteria. You might think that ACE is a bad organization, but please don’t pretend disagreeing with you is a crime. Also note how you did not respond to any of the points I raised.

I never said we were going to sue them. You are misreading all sorts of things.

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