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February 2006
Which Came First: the Cruelty or the Egg?
By Erica Meier

 

Battery hens. Photo courtesy of Compassion Over Killing
Battery hens. Photo courtesy of Compassion Over Killing

People should know the chickens are better off in cages and why. They should know the chickens are content and productive.—Henry Wentink, then vice president of agribusiness giant Walt Montgomery Associates

The egg industry has long attempted to ignore allegations of cruelty to animals. But as a growing number of consumers discover the hard-boiled truth about modern egg production—thanks in large part to several undercover investigations by animal advocacy organizations in recent years—the industry is scrambling to keep its reputation from cracking.

While most people still conjure up images of Old MacDonald’s Farm when they think about where eggs come from, the dismal reality is that behind nearly every egg sold in grocery stores today is a hen confined inside a wire battery cage so small, she can’t even spread her wings. She will never build a nest, raise her young, scratch at the earth, roost in a tree, or even set foot outside. After her exhausted body becomes too battered and weak to continue laying a profitable number of eggs, she’ll finally be plucked from her cage—and her first breath of fresh air will be on a truck bound for slaughter. That is, if she doesn’t die first or be killed at the factory farm.

Egg-laying hens are subjected to some of the worst abuses imaginable. They are arguably the most intensively confined animals in agribusiness today. A typical battery cage facility holds tens of thousands of hens inside a single shed, and each hen is afforded less living space than the size of a sheet of paper. With virtually no laws protecting them, these birds can be—and routinely are—treated in ways that would warrant charges of cruelty to animals in all 50 states if those same abuses were inflicted upon cats or dogs.

In April and May 2001, Compassion Over Killing conducted its first investigation inside an egg factory farm in Cecilton, Maryland. Using still and video cameras, the investigators made their way through row upon row of battery cages stacked four levels high, with each cage crammed with up to eight birds, documenting the horrors egg-laying hens are forced to endure on a daily basis. The images reveal overcrowding, severe feather loss, untreated illness and injuries, birds immobilized in the wires of their cages, and dead birds left in cages with live hens. What the photos and video footage are unable to capture is the stench of thousands of pounds of excrement collecting in the manure pits below the cages—a stench the birds cannot escape. The Washington Post featured a detailed article about this investigation, exposing thousands of readers, perhaps for the first time, to the inherent cruelties of battery cage egg production.

"Animal Care Certified”
To quell the rising tide of public concern for egg-laying hens, the United Egg Producers (UEP), an industry trade group representing more than 85 percent of egg producers, developed the “Animal Care Certified” program, and, in 2002, a logo bearing those words began appearing on egg cartons nationwide. While polls show that the “Animal Care Certified” seal speaks volumes to consumers concerned about animal cruelty, the guidelines themselves do little more than codify what has long been the industry norm. In fact, when the program was unveiled, the only significant change for hens to be found was regarding cage space: the guidelines call for 67 square inches of space per hen by 2008, up from the standard 48 square inches. However, studies show that hens need on average 72 square inches just to stand and 291 square inches merely to flap their wings.

Since the egg industry’s creation of this shameful public relations scam, COK investigators have visited several facilities following these voluntary guidelines and certified by the UEP. With each investigation, we gathered ample evidence of routine animal cruelty showing that these egg factories are anything but humane. Tragically, but not surprisingly, the conditions for hens found inside these so-called “Animal Care Certified” facilities are largely indistinguishable from non-certified egg farms. During COK’s two week egg farm investigation in 2005, we documented appalling conditions in all three of Maryland’s largest egg factory farms—two of which participate in the “Animal Care Certified” program—demonstrating that animal abuse is the industry norm, not the exception.

Undercover egg factory farm investigations conducted by other animal advocacy organizations across the country, including Ohio, Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania, and California, further confirm that cruelty to animals is standard business in commercial egg production, regardless of industry certification status.

The damning media reports garnered by these types of exposés allowed millions of consumers to learn about the egg industry’s abusive practices, and, more importantly, laid the foundation that made 2005 a landmark year for the anti-battery cage effort in the U.S.

Advocacy Works!
Most notably, on September 30, 2005, after reviewing the matter that was first brought to its attention by COK two years earlier, the Federal Trade Commission announced that the egg industry’s misleading “Animal Care Certified” logo will be gone from store shelves within months. A new logo reading “United Egg Producers Certified” will take its place—a label that will no longer mislead consumers with a false message of humane animal care. This is an important victory for both consumers and egg-laying hens, and sets a precedent that consumer deception regarding animal cruelty will not be tolerated.

The anti-battery cage effort made further gains with the work of the Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS). In early 2005, Wild Oats Natural Marketplace joined Whole Foods Market, two of the nation’s top natural foods retailers, and adopted a policy of only stocking its store shelves with cage-free eggs. Soon, other chains, food distributors, and universities signed onto HSUS’s No Battery Eggs campaign. Earth Fare and Jimbo’s, two regional grocery chains, discontinued all sales of battery eggs; national food service provider Bon Appétit implemented a cage-free policy for eight million shell eggs served annually; dozens of college campuses have pledged to discontinue or dramatically reduce their use of battery eggs; and Trader Joe’s, after a four-month campaign led by HSUS, agreed to convert its own brand of eggs to cage-free.

Every step taken to remove support from battery cage egg production is a step in the right direction for egg-laying hens. Experts agree that battery cages deprive hens of their most basic needs, and even with the industry’s new guidelines for cage space, these birds remain one of the most intensively confined of all farmed animals in the U.S. Lesley Rogers, author of The Development of Brain and Behaviour in the Chicken, writes of battery cages: “In no way can these living conditions meet the demands of a complex nervous system designed to form a multitude of memories and make complex decisions.”

Welfare concerns have already prompted several European countries, including Sweden, Austria and Germany, to phase out the use of battery cages altogether, and the entire European Union has voted to phase out battery cages by 2012.

While no such legislative advancements for egg-laying hens have yet been made in the U.S., polls show that most Americans support laws that protect farmed animals and that many are willing to pay higher prices for what they perceive to be more humane products. These sentiments are echoed in recent victories on the state level. In Florida, voters passed a ballot initiative in 2002 to ban the use of gestation crates for pregnant pigs, and, in 2004, California Governor Schwarzenegger signed a bill into law banning the force-feeding of ducks and geese for foie gras. Legislation to ban particular factory farming practices is now pending in several other states, including Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Oregon.

According to a recent report in Feedstuffs, a trade industry publication, the U.S. egg industry is considered the number two animal activist target (behind the Australian wool industry), and industry officials are clearly feeling the heat. In that same issue of Feedstuffs, Gene Gregory, senior vice president of the United Egg Producers, stated, “The time has come to defend conventional cage production systems.”

The egg industry continues to defend the indefensible. Indeed, Ken Klippen, then spokesperson for the United Egg Producers, stated in a 2004 television interview, “The research showed it was humane to have chickens in cages. In fact, they would prefer to be in cages.” However, no published studies can be found supporting this claim. According to Dr. Klaus Vestergaard of the Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University in Denmark, “The scientific results that have been accumulating over the last 12 years have supported the view that the battery hen suffers unnecessarily and that the causes are inherent in the battery cage system.”

The U.S. anti-battery cage effort is gaining strength with every exposure of the reality of life on egg factory farms. And with both science and public opinion clearly favoring the hens, the time is ripe for voters and lawmakers to take a stand against animal cruelty by banning battery cages.

Erica Meier is the Executive Director of Compassion Over Killing, a Washington, DC-based animal advocacy group. Check out their eye-opening documentary,
45 Days: The Life and Death of a Broiler Chicken. To learn more or get involved with COK’s campaign to air 45 Days in all 50 states, contact www.cok.net or (301) 891-2458.

 

 


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