It’s funny sometimes the things we take for granted, like heading over to the local food store for a gallon of milk and a dozen eggs. Both are pretty inexpensive, especially when you consider that most of us don’t have to spend the time caring for a cow, or tending to a flock of chickens. It’s a fine arrangement. We do our jobs and leave others to raise and milk the cows, feed and slaughter the chickens, and get from them in return two staple products most of us couldn’t live without.
But then you go to the store and you’re standing there at the egg section and you’re confused by the dizzying array of choices. Aside from competing brands, there’s also a different sort of choice being presented to you. There’s your standard plain ol’ eggs, which are almost always cheaper. Then there are ‘Cage Free’ eggs which are always sitting there as well only taking up much less shelf space than plain ol’ eggs. Have you ever stopped to think about why that is? I mean, is it just a clever marketing scheme aimed at the recent trend toward ‘organic products?’ Why the need for labels that specify things like ‘Cage Free’ or ‘Free Range’? Aren’t all chickens pretty well taken care of? Who says chickens need to be ‘cage free’ anyway? Just what kind of cages are we talking about here…
It struck me that here are egg producers marketing their products not as being better, bigger or healthier for consumers but on how they treat their animals. It’s almost sort of strange when you think about it. Why do some producers even need to have this kind of marketing? Aren’t there already regulations on the industry dictating how the animals should be treated? Surely there must be. And this is America after all so we can just assume these same regulations stipulate humane treatment of farm animals right? I was curious about this…so I started doing some digging. Here’s some of what I’ve learned over the last week or so.
- The Egg and Poultry Industry falls under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which it turns out doesn’t so much legislate the humane treatment of farm hens. Instead the “Factory Farms” that produce chicken meat and eggs are encouraged to follow the guidelines of one or more outside Audit and Certification programs. You can find a list of these programs here. In other words, much of the animals’ welfare is contingent on voluntary participation in third-party certification programs, rather than being based on legal requirements enforced through regular mandatory inspections.
- Chickens are intelligent creatures possessing tendencies found in many mammals, such as dogs, cats or humans. They have amazing problem solving skills, socialize in groups, care for their young and are endowed with unique personalities. One engaging article from the Advocacy section of brittanica.com talks about the way a mother hen goes to great lengths to nurture and care for her young. A link to this article can be found at the bottom of this post and offers a good deal of insight into the nature of chickens and many of the practices still carried out in the poultry industry.
- Sadly, many chickens are denied the opportunity to engage in even their most basic natural behaviors: perching, nesting, dust bathing, stretching their wings, standing upright, walking around. The environment where these conditions exist are found in a common form of Factory Farming infrastructure known as “Battery Cages.” The Humane Society has brief but informative articles explaining the differences between Cage-Free and Battery Cages.
When you’re talking about something as unfamiliar as Factory Farm practices it helps to see what’s being discussed. To help put this whole thing in context I’ve dug up two sets of photos. The first group of images were borrowed from Compassionate Action for Animals. The organization Compassion Over Killing has also conducted on-site and undercover investigations, with photos of their findings. I want to imagine these images reflect extreme cases. I certainly hope so as these are some of the tamer photos.
The next set is comprised of images from various sources and shows a range of ‘Cage Free’ implementations. It’s worth noting at this point that while these reveal the plausibility and working methodology of Cage Free Farming they may not be an accurate reflection of its aggregate use. To me, these images represent a general but valid (and more importantly humane) alternative to the more common Battery Cage production method.
As you can see, these two sets of photos reflect very different realities for the chickens we rely on for our poultry meat and eggs. They may not tell the whole story, but they at least offer us a glimpse into the very real disparity that exists between traditional Battery Cage and Cage Free ‘Factory Farming’ methods.
One of the other aspects of this issue that came to my attention was the particular popularity of one certifying entity known as United Egg Producers. They provide a nice looking “UEP Certified” logo for Battery Cage cartons, and a consumer friendly website explaining some of the measures being taken to improve Battery Cage conditions. If you feel the least bit skeptical about some of the claims arising from rights groups and animal advocates I encourage you to review these resources from the other side of the issue. You may also be interested to see what the Humane Society had to say [in 2009] about this program. Reading through the UEP FAQ page left me with a few questions of my own. I’ve included those below as an image file. The blue writing are my own responses and clarification questions.
Without a universal set of standards in place it’s difficult to know what any of these certification labels really mean. Even if we decide to care about the welfare of farm hens how do we know what to look for? It’s a perfectly valid question. To keep it simple the conventional wisdom says to look for cartons specifically stamped with the words “Cage Free” or even better “Certified Humane.” All other descriptions, such as “Natural” or “UEP Certified” should be considered suspect. You can probably also ignore any pictures or illustrations on the cartons as those can often be misleading as well. The Humane Society put together an excellent Guide to Egg Carton Labels which is worth a look.
It comes down to this. Most of us agree that breeding and using livestock is an acceptable source of food for the human population. And I think we can also agree that at the same time there ought to be definite limits on the amount of suffering these animals should endure. We use animals, but by no means should we abuse or allow others to abuse them. It is possible to use animals for our own benefit while still affording them a decent quality of life during their brief time. But it comes at a cost. In the case of farm hens the cost is pretty low when you put it into context. What’s the average price difference between plain ol’ eggs and a carton of Cage Free eggs? Since it fluctuates let’s say between 0.20 to a $1.00. Take another look at the pictures above. Take a look again at the third picture. Look into that hen’s eyes and tell me that creature isn’t aware of the conditions it’s being forced to live in. Now imagine yourself standing at the egg section of the supermarket. This is where you have a choice to make. You can save a dollar on your eggs and walk out of that store congratulating yourself on having saved a buck. But bear in mind that for every dollar saved by consumers another hen is condemned to a life in one of those cages. Or you can make another choice. You can spend an extra dollar (maybe less) and invest in a better life for a creature that never volunteered for any of this in the first place.
- This informative article from the Advocacy section of Encyclopedia Britannica talks about the life of Factory Farm chickens living in traditional Battery Cage facilities – a sad, but worthwhile read
- A short PDF Article from HFAC that shows & talks about different chicken Housing Systems
- Find out why “Certified Humane” is the best way to go by visiting their website to learn more