Welfare standards for hens are at risk of flying the coop in 2020 because eggs from caged hens are likely to be served up to athletes at the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Having set sustainability objectives for the 2012 Games, the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and the Paralympic Games (LOCOG) set a benchmark for animal welfare that required farmers to supply only free-range eggs and chickens at games venues and the Olympic Village.

The same standard for cage-free eggs was also used during the 2016 Rio Games, ensuring the chicken served there came from birds that were fed a natural vegetable diet.

Animal welfare standards for the 2020 Tokyo Games, however, do not put any restrictions on rearing hens in battery cages — closely arranged small wire cages that house several birds together — as these are widely used in Japan.

“Hens have the natural behavior of pecking at the ground for food, as well as nesting before laying eggs. Battery cages limit these behaviors as there is almost no space for hens to move,” said Shusuke Sato, professor in the Department of Animal Sciences at Teikyo University of Science. “The European Commission banned the use of battery cages for egg-laying hens in 2012.”

The Japan Livestock Technology Association, which sets the Animal Welfare-oriented Livestock Management Standards for the 2020 Games, acknowledges in its guidelines that Europe is shifting away from battery cages but says expanding the size of cages could lead to more conflicts among the birds and a decline in productivity.

For the 2020 Games, producers who want to supply food must obtain one of two certifications: the Global Good Agricultural Practice (Global G.A.P.) or the Japan Good Agricultural Practice (JGAP). Both include criteria for animal welfare.

The farm ministry is aiming to increase certified farmers ahead of the games. It sent out an announcement to its Regional Agricultural Administration Offices in November, calling for recognizing and sharing the basic concepts of animal welfare standards with local livestock producers.

Neither of the standards, however, bans the use of battery cages.

The farm ministry claims the animal welfare standards for the 2020 Olympics were created in accordance with the codes of the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), adopted by 181 countries. But critics say the standards are low by European standards, as well as those used at the London and Rio Olympics, as they do not set numerical benchmarks.

“In Japan, there is a similar animal welfare concept called dobutsu aigo (love and protection of animals). Japanese show relatively high concern for the welfare of pets, such as dogs and cats, but are not accustomed to considering livestock animals as part of dobutsu aigo,” said Chihiro Okada, a representative of nonprofit organization Animal Rights Center Japan.

Teikyo University of Science’s Sato pointed out that the government’s reluctance to ban battery cages stems from low awareness of animal welfare among consumers.

“Unlike Europeans who are highly concerned about animal welfare, public awareness of animal welfare is quite low in Japan, and therefore, Japanese tend to be reluctant to pay for cage-free eggs, which are priced higher than noncage-free eggs,” said Sato. “In Europe, some governments subsidize farm producers who raise uncaged hens. But considering the low public demand for cage-free eggs in Japan, the agriculture ministry is unlikely to subsidize livestock producers who raise uncaged hens.”

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