Deal Struck Between Egg Companies and the Humane Society of the United States
United Egg Producers, the marketing association for the majority of U.S. egg sellers, joined with the Humane Society of the United States in announcing a proposal to adjust the confinement standards for some chickens – specifically, egg-laying hens. The proposal would shift the industry from barren battery cages to a type of enclosure known as the “furnished” or “enriched” colony cage.
In other words, the Humane Society has just reversed its previous assertion that it would only support “cage-free” confinement for egg-laying hens.
Until a month of negotiations ended in July, it seemed far from possible. “I can't believe we're here,” Chad Gregory, senior vice president of United Egg Producers, told the media.
Are colony cages at least somewhat better than the standard battery cage? Colony cages typically include extra parts, including something to scratch; and any cages with more materials in them are known for increasing the ammonia levels at production sites; the new proposal would involve setting maximum allowable ammonia levels, though the details are as yet unclear. There are to be mutually approved methods to force birds into “molting” (a shedding and replacement of feathers, followed by heightened egg production for an extended period). While the Humane Society claims the agreement would end the practice of starving the birds to induce shedding, the group will evidently accept such methods as cutting the calories in the feed, light deprivation, or administering thyroid hormones to the birds. These practices are approved by the American Veterinary Medical Association, whose recommendations the Humane Society and UEP have agreed to follow.
The new cages would be designed to permit a semblance of perching and nesting motion, though the fruits of the “nesting” will not belong to the birds.
By 2029, the new cage standard is to apply nationwide. New cages will nearly double the space allowed to each bird. (How much room do today’s hens occupy inside their cages? For each bird, the blueprint’s no larger than a sheet of office paper.) Labels will identify the type of confinement used to produce a given carton of eggs.
Although this proposal is being vaunted as a victory, the egg producers’ trade group and the Humane Society are really saying they would back a future law setting the new standards. Lawmaking is typically marked by contortions and compromises. And legislation can be repealed.
But let’s assume this proposal is enacted and, 18 years later, takes effect. Could we then call the collaboration a step forward?
First, let’s note that the human body has no nutritional need for the eggs of other animals. And we damage our environment when we take the extra resources required to store and feed animals - chickens included. North Americans who opt out of eggs, dairy, and flesh products cut our yearly individual greenhouse gas emissions by about a ton and a half. Talk about direct action!
But those vital messages are absent in talk of a “step forward” or a “victory” when a new model of birdcage is proposed.
Putting birds in colony cages, taking their eggs away and killing them at the end of their run does not make them happy. It doesn’t even make them more fortunate than they used to be. Birds in cages 18 years from now won’t thank us because we could have made those cages smaller.
The bleak conditions of egg farms lead some birds into what the industry calls “hen hysteria” and desperate attempts to compete over what little space and material they have. (The modified cage’s nesting area - even if it’s just a plastic strip - ups the ante.) Whether the birds are going to battery farms, modified cages, or sheds, the suppliers first sever the beaks of newly hatched chicks, to keep birds from pecking each other. Cannibalism occurs in confinement – whether in barren battery cages or the new, furnished cages.
Also, hundreds of millions of male chicks will still be killed annually at the hatcheries, for male birds are useless in egg production.
Although it might rally the donors to claim United Egg Producers would be stepping forward by following the model proven by European egg companies as they discard cramped battery cages and adopt colony cages, in truth continental Europe’s egg market is a high-volume affair. Producers use a multi-tiered system to fill buildings with cages upon cages of birds under EU regulations allowing up to three tiers.
“Donors Fooled Again”
Those of us who attended the North American Vegetarian Society’s annual Summerfest (a food festival, educational conference and social gathering that attracted 675 people this year) heard an impromptu announcement at the plenary session on Thursday the 7 th of July. A representative of the Humane Society of the United States got onto the stage and – giving no specific details - lauded the group’s agreement with United Egg Producers to reject battery cages as the best day in a whole career of advocacy. The announcer for the regularly scheduled plenary presentations went along with the turn of events, joining in the excitement and going so far as to say chickens who’d died after terrible lives in battery cages were now applauding from heaven.
Bradley Miller of the Humane Farming Association, based in San Rafael, California, sounded an alarm. Quickly after we heard the excited proclamations, Priscilla Feral forwarded Brad’s e-mail on how the donors had just been “fooled again.” Brad pointed out that the proposed law would, if enacted at all, be effective 18 years from now. “Of course,” wrote Brad, “the industry gets what it wants right away.”
Washington and Oregon ballot measures to introduce husbandry improvements for chickens were called off, notwithstanding the many volunteers who had journeyed long distances to those states to collect voters’ signatures. The industry enjoyed an immediate publicity coup, and the United Egg Producers website began showing off the agreement as top news.
Of particular note, Brad added that the agreement “would eliminate any chance of outlawing hen cages (or making other housing or husbandry reforms) in any state of the nation.” State anti-cruelty provisions are already extremely difficult to use in challenging agribusiness. A federal law would render them useless.
What kind of enforcement would the federal government apply, Brad asked, to ensure that the dubious new standards are met? Who would do the investigations? “The industry-controlled U.S. Department of Agriculture? We already know what kind of job they do!”
And in fact, to secure the United Egg Producers’ agreement, the Humane Society has agreed not to conduct exposés at farms belonging to the trade association.
A group working directly with farm animals ought to know better than to publish such a statement. No kind of commercial confinement should be praised by a sanctuary. Battery cages, colony cages and free-range arrangements (whether sheds or ranges) all have their detriments; by changing the enclosure type, one kind of suffering is traded for another. Free-range birds are more susceptible than caged hens to both bone breakage and cannibalism. Birds kept in colony cages, in comparison with battery birds, show a heightened vulnerability to bumblefoot, an infection of the skin and tissues of the foot. The "bumbles" are abscesses caused by the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus. Bumblefoot has been shown to be correlated to the use of wet or non-optimally designed perches or flooring in colony cages. And birds in colony cages will never see or feel the light and warmth of the sun. In the end, all birds who survive their 70 weeks of captive existence will be slaughtered as – to use the industrial terminology – spent hens.
In short, the proposed legal arrangement accepts and involves breeding, killing and keeping birds in cages through the year 2029 - and well beyond.
As United Poultry Concerns (a Virginia based non-profit that often supports husbandry reform for birds in animal agribusiness) stated the day after the announcement, “An additional reasonable fear in this particular case is that, should a federal law be enacted, it will be a diluted version of the initial proposals, and the cage, albeit ‘enriched’ with tiny furniture including nestboxes that are actually just plastic strips, will be established for decades to come.”
No animal advocate need agree to this. And certainly no advocate ought to mislead their donors – and allow the egg industry to mislead its adherents - into thinking they have transformed the bleak conditions of egg factories into something to celebrate.
Some of the proponents of the proposed law have been saying that the media exposure that comes from campaigns to regulate the industry’s “worst abuses” tend to reduce demand for the products of animal agribusiness such as eggs. But if that is so, wouldn’t media coverage of a “groundbreaking victory for hens” counteract that effect? Wouldn’t it be better for advocates of birds to ask that birds not be bred, caged, bought, sold, mutilated, killed and consumed? Wouldn’t it be better to focus on showing the public just how beautiful and refreshing pure vegetarian offerings can be?
Accustomed to our advantages, human beings, activists included, rarely pose a straightforward challenge to human domination and control. But when we do, animal rights become a reality.
Can it happen culture-wide? Consider this: Five hundred years ago, Europeans thought Earth was central in the cosmos; everything revolved around us. New knowledge came as a shock; then a culture’s perspective shifted. What had seemed obvious and eternal was something else entirely: an error of the past. Similarly, the animal-rights position challenges an old view that we’re central and everyone, everything, revolves around us. It questions the notion that Homo sapiens alone merit serious moral consideration, and can enslave all others or uproot and pave over their habitats, their homes.
Another humanity is possible. Many advocates believe in pursuing it in incremental steps. And that might well be the way forward, but the first step is from the egg and dairy aisle to the vegan cookbook.
- See Jayme Fraser, “Traditional Opponents Support Nationwide Ban on Battery Cages for Egg-Laying Hens” - The Oregonian (7 Jul. 2011); available: http://bit.ly/ChadGregory
- American Veterinary Medical Association, “Welfare Implications of Induced Molting of Layer Chickens” (Feb. 2010); available: http://bit.ly/AVMAeggs