My Quest for a Humane Egg

by David Sudarsky

Over the past few years, the mainstream consumer has become aware of the horrific modern production of eggs, under which hens are stuffed into battery cages, where they spend their entire miserable lives on a wired surface averaging approximately 7x7 inches per bird. As with the exposed veal industry decades ago, the brutal truth of egg production has prompted a good number of consumers to look for more humane alternatives. Even if 97% of eggs are still produced under atrocious conditions, at least consumers now have the option of purchasing "Cage-Free" eggs, "Free Range" eggs, "Animal Care Certified" eggs, and eggs from "Free-Roaming" hens or "Happy Hens." But what do these terms really mean? Are these terms regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), or by anyone else?

Clearly, there are now plenty of labels relating to the welfare of egg-laying hens. This means that the egg industry acknowledges that the consumer cares about the welfare of "food" animals, and the industry is doing something about it. Are they providing a humane alternative to the standard egg? That is the question, and here are some answers.

"Free Range" and "Free Roaming" are terms that bring to mind idyllic barnyard scenes. These labels, which are regulated by the USDA, may be used by a producer if their hens are allowed some access to the outdoors. This does not guarantee constant access, nor is there any specification of the size of the outdoor area (which is, of course, a penned area, not a range). Because production efficiency is paramount in the highly-competitive egg industry, a high density of hens per area is the norm.

Some producers, particularly those in colder regions of the country, have found little use for the terms "Free Range" and "Free Roaming." Why would they want their hens to have access to a harsh or snow-covered landscape? Instead, the term, "Cage-Free," is their buzzword of choice. The problem is that this term is completely unregulated. Still, it is reasonable to take this term at face value and assume that the hens do not live their lives in cages. It is not reasonable to assume that there is ample space, that birds are not debeaked (as in factory farms), or that their physical and psychological welfare is of any concern to the producer. Hens will lay eggs even if they are under great stress. Egg-laying is simply a biological function.

I thought it might be a good idea to contact a few companies that I know to be somewhat more animal-friendly and/or socially conscious than the average. Trader Joe's, a national specialty grocer, offers a large range of vegan and soy products. They also offer "Cage Free" eggs. None of the employees at my local store could offer any information concerning the welfare of the hens. However, I did get a response from corporate headquarters: "The hens live in barns with some access to the outdoors. They are debeaked because that is necessary to keep them from injuring each other." If, in fact, Trader Joe's deems debeaking as necessary, then this immediately reveals the high density of birds. Under a true free range setting, hens can establish a "pecking order" and none is in danger so long as she can move easily to a different area. Under a high-stress, high-density environment, a natural pecking order cannot be established and the sharp beaks of hens can result in injury (and death) to large numbers of birds.

Allow me to digress for a moment to detail debeaking: It is a process by which much of a young chick's beak is burned or cut off without anesthetic. Because a bird's beak has many nerves, it is a very painful procedure. This fact is well established. Some chicks die of shock, while others may be left with deformed beaks that prevent them from feeding, thereby leading to starvation. But most chicks do make it past the debeaking process OK -- that is, if they are female. Male chicks do not lay eggs and are not good "meat" birds, so they are discarded at the hatchery well before the debeaking process. Yes, a full 50% of chicks are simply killed without anesthetic or stunning because they are of no use to the industry and the time involved for a less painful death would be too costly to the industry. Many of their sisters are headed off to factory egg farms, while others are purchased by "Cage Free" or "Free Roaming" operations.

Speaking of "Free Roaming" operations, a few days after realizing that Trader Joe's does not offer humanely produced eggs, I was at our local natural foods co-op, where I found an expensive half-dozen free range egg package from Shelton's. This was no ordinary package. It contained a photo-realistic image of a few hens outside a barn, and they had full beaks! I contacted Shelton's by email, because I wanted to know if their hens really were not debeaked. I received a quick, disappointing reply. It turned out that their hens are debeaked. I shot off another email asking Shelton's why their package showed hens with full beaks. I also asked if they thought that was, perhaps, false or deceptive advertising on their part. I never did receive a reply to that email.

Perhaps I would fare better with "Animal Care Certified" eggs? No, this turned out to be a complete joke. At least "Cage-Free" and "Free-Range" hens are not in tiny cages. "Animal Care Certified" is a seal developed by an egg industry trade group known as United Egg Producers. Standard battery cages are still used, but each bird will be guaranteed 35% more space than the previous average. This is a minor improvement, but adding 17-18 square inches of space is still not nearly enough for the birds to spread their wings. I intentionally stated, "will be guaranteed 35% more space," because the seal can be displayed now by any producer that agrees to phase in the extra space in the coming years, so that their business is not disrupted. In other words, the seal is a promise of sorts to provide a little more space for hens in the future. This industry seal also carries with it other advances, such as maintaining a sufficient supply of food and water for the birds. Apparently, that is just too much to ask of some producers that cannot meet the meager United Egg Producers' standards. If keeping hens in battery cages too small for them to spread their wings (for their entire lives) is "animal care" in your estimation, then perhaps you should purchase "Animal Care Certified" eggs. However, the Better Business Bureau has asked United Egg Producers to stop using the seal because it implies that animals are actually treated reasonably well, which is very far from the truth.

The egg industry, like the meat industry, is morally bankrupt. They consistently offer consumers deception and half-truths concerning animal care standards. In general, consumers do want to continue to purchase eggs, but without a guilty conscience. Terms such as "Happy Hens" (another ridiculous and completely unregulated label) imply that animals are raised with proper care and that they live their lives naturally and happily before being slaughtered. This is complete and utter nonsense. Perhaps the only "Happy Hens" are those that have been rescued to live out their lives at Farm Sanctuary and other animal shelters, but their eggs aren't for sale.

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