Perhaps bird flu should be called poultry flu. It originally developed on commercial poultry farms. The commercial breeding and confinement of chickens, ducks and other birds allows the virus to spread. It would be the perfect time for our population to rethink our dependence on birds when making our meals.
Most eggs marketed in North America are produced by a handful of agribusiness corporations, which are in turn kept in business by consumers who will continue to buy them as long as advertisers work to promote eggs as healthful. They aren’t, of course. Not only does egg production pose health threats to the population at large; it also represents a personal health risk, given that an egg may contain 200 milligrams of cholesterol. Yet many consumers will take cholesterol-lowering drugs to stave off heart disease before freeing their diets from animal products such as eggs. This suits both the animal farming industry and the pharmaceutical sector. One tried-and-true marketing technique entails heralding a new and improved product by revamping an old one. Pricier than their traditional counterparts, eggs in fancy new packages are touted as healthful and appealing. Some have even been promoted as "health eggs" to promise lower cholesterol—even as the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences reports that no scientific evidence supports that claim.
Nor does paying more for "free-range" or "cage-free" eggs mean that chickens live in the sanitary, comfortable quarters that the top end of the egg industry would like consumers to picture.
As Suzanne Hamlin recently wrote in The New York Times, "The widespread assumption is that a free-range chicken is a happy-go-lucky bird, gamboling about the barnyard at will, pecking at organic grains until its rendezvous with a wood-burning grill."
In reality, virtually all eggs are mass-produced commodities from birds who spend most of their short lives stuffed into the smallest possible space. I toured four immense warehouses at one popular cage-free egg operation in Hubbardston, Massachusetts. Each held about 7,500 hens, in flocks of 1,500 birds. Hens were crowded so closely together that the floors were completely covered by the seas of animal bodies.
The manager said, "We’ve gone back to the ancient way of raising hens. Take away stress, give the proper diet and our research shows that it lowers cholesterol in the egg."
Some of the animals were dead. I pointed them out to the manager, who then had them removed. But the general public is not touring such warehouses. So schools and corporate cafeterias are now competing with Whole Foods Market, Wild Oats and Trader Joe’s, buying into the "cage-free" concept. Ohio State University, which buys 1.8 million eggs each year, is prepared to spend about $4,000 annually to join a national animal-welfare group’s "cage-free" promotion. In May, the Columbus Dispatch reported that the school’s cafeteria management will tout the eggs’ qualities in weekly e-mails, on a Web site, and in literature in the dining halls. Lee Hall, legal director for Friends of Animals, stated, "Only their naíveté is uncaged. The term ’cage-free’ may jack up the price, but it carries no specific space requirements."
Even traditional egg producers can get in on the act. Some promote themselves with yet another twist on the humane fantasy: factory surplus or "spent" hens are now being recovered before slaughter by animal welfare groups, their eggs sold to customers who believe they are supporting animal rescue in this fashion.
It’s time to take a firm stand against trends that turn animal advocates into advocates for animal agribusiness. As we face the biggest set of extinctions and the most ominous climate indicators in modern history, designing campaigns around more space for animals destined to wind up on plates at universities and pricey grocers is not social awareness; it’s environmental malpractice.
Here’s some real news: We can live without depending on birds to lay our meals. The merchandise page inside this Act’ionLine shows how to purchase our first cookbook, Dining With Friends: The Art of North American Vegan Cuisine, which includes delicious, healthful, and entirely egg-free recipes.