Edging Away from Cruel Eggs: Part 1 - California’s Prop 2

My Hipster Hens live the good life. They have plenty of space to move around—each bird has 9-10 square feet of coop space, they can go outside every day as long as the weather allows it, and “outside” is either the spacious “hen pen” or the half-acre chicken run.  Both the run and the pen have plenty of dirt for scratching and lots of trees for shade.  Both coops have ample roosting space, plenty of nest boxes and a large container of sand for dust bathing.  The birds get free choice commercial chicken feed, grit, and oyster shell as well as some scratch grain every night as a treat and all the garden waste and kitchen scraps that I’ve got. 
The Hipster Hens - July 2014

The typical laying hen living on a factory farm is a whole different story.  About 75% of all egg laying hens live in battery cages.  Each cage holds a huge bunch of hens.  By law, a hen only has to be given 67 square inches of floor space.  A standard sheet of printer paper is 93.5 square inches, so if you imagine a hen sitting on that sheet of paper, she doesn’t even get the whole sheet.  The caged hen can’t do any of the things chickens naturally do—no dust-bathing, scratching in the dirt, or nest building.  In fact, the cage is so crowded the hen can’t even manage to flap her wings or turn around.  What can she do?  Well, she can stick her head between the bars of the cage to get food and water, she can lays eggs—right where she stands (they roll down the slanted wire floor to a conveyor), she can poop, and that falls through the wire floor onto the rows of cages below her, just as the poop from the cages above her rain down on her, and basically she can stand in one place for her whole life.  From the hen’s point of view, the world outside her cage consists of rows and rows of other cages that fill up a cavernous, windowless barn.  The air is filled with the stench and ammonia of accumulating manure, and the sounds of thousands of other chickens. 

She and her cage mates are always stressed due to their living conditions and crowding, and the stress and crowding make them more prone to diseases such as avian influenza (stay tuned for a post on bird flu). Not surprisingly, crowding compels the hens to peck each other a lot.  To prevent pecking injuries every hen has the end of her beak cut off when she is still a baby chick.  “Beak trimming” is done without anesthetics and not only is it intensely painful for the baby chick, but it causes chronic pain for the rest of the hen’s life.  A hen, after a season of laying eggs, needs to molt in order to renew her feathers.  Since hens don’t lay eggs during their molt and since not all of the hens in a flock molt at exactly the same time, it creates annoying imprecision in the well-oiled machine that is the factory farm.  So the hens are forced to molt simultaneously by manipulating the light, by withholding water, and by starving them.  When the second season is drawing to an end, to avoid another molt and another period of lagging egg production, the entire flock is slaughtered.  Thus, after about two years, a hen’s life ends and she is turned into dog food.

Battery Cages (Maqi~commonswiki)
These are the basic facts of the egg industry and it is both appropriate and important that everyone who eats eggs is aware of them.  If some of the practices sound cruel to you, that’s because they are.  But having said that, I think that we all also need to acknowledge this truth:  Factory farmed chickens are a business.  Egg companies expect to make a profit, and they do whatever necessary to stay competitive.  The factory farm battery cage system that I’ve just described is a sterling model of efficiency that produces the cheapest eggs possible for the least amount of capital invested.  My chickens, on the other hand, are a money losing proposition.  I sell a few eggs to friends, but the money generated by egg sales is a fraction of my expenses.  I’m in the chicken business for the fun of it, and the Hipster Hens provide me with an abundance of joy and gratification.  But as a business model it’s ridiculous.  

But here’s the other important truth we also need to never lose sight of:  The battery cage model of egg production depends on the torture of living, sentient creatures.  As Andrew Lawler points out in “Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?” “You don’t have to be vegan to wonder if it is right to put another entire species in perpetual pain in order to satisfy a craving for chicken salad and deviled eggs.” So here’s the question:  Is there a middle ground somewhere between my happy Hipster Hens and the abused battery caged hens?  Is there some sort of compromise situation where hens can be humanely and ethically treated and the egg company can still make a profit? 

As someone who takes time to read this blog, I’m sure that you agree with the majority of consumers (58%) who, according to a survey conducted by Public Opinion Strategies, would be willing to pay more for eggs that are labeled “humanely raised.”  The majority of voters in California (63.5%) had similar sentiments in 2008 when they voted in favor of Proposition 2.  Proposition 2 created a new state law that would prohibit “the confinement of farm animals in a manner that does not allow them to turn around freely, lie down, stand up, or fully extend their limbs.”  Other states had previously voted to eliminate crates for pigs and calves, but this was the first legislation to end the abuse of chickens. 

Proposition 2 finally went into effect in 2015 and once in place, it has had a huge impact not just in California, but in the entire country.  This year, we’ve seen almost continuous announcements by national retailers and restaurants that they will no longer use eggs from hens in battery cages.  Some of these companies include Starbucks, Burger King, Subway, Kraft Heinz, and Unilever (the maker of Hellmann's Mayonnaise).  Recently MacDonald’s, which uses over two billion eggs per year, made the switch.  Don’t assume the battle is over, but it has been a hard fight—both before and after the California vote—just to get to where we are. 

The run-up to the 2008 vote saw intense campaigning by both proponents and opponents of the proposition.  Proponents argued that it was cruel to confine any animal in a cage that was barely big enough for its body, that better conditions for our food-producing animals would result in better health for us, that standards to raise chickens humanely would allow those farmers already operating humanely to be more competitive, and that if all egg producers had humane practices, the scale would cause the price to go down.  The primary contributor to the “Vote Yes” campaign was the Humane Society of the United States which contributed over 4 million dollars.  Here’s a typical ad run by the “Vote Yes” people. 

Opponents of Proposition 2 argued that uncaged production methods were more expensive and would cause the cost of eggs to go up, that uncaged chickens would be more prone to predator attacks, and that the costs and regulations resulting from Prop 2 going into effect would put California producers out of business because their prices would be undercut by producers in Mexico and other states not subject to the Prop 2 regulations.  The big contributors to the “Vote No” campaign were, not surprisingly, the big egg producing companies.  The top contributor was Cal-Maine Foods, which is currently the largest producer and distributor of eggs in the U.S. and the world.  Here’s an ad run by the “Vote No” coalition.  

The success of Prop 2 in 2008 did not mean an immediate victory for California’s abused hens.  The proposition itself dictated that the new laws would not take effect until 2015, and of course, once the vote was in, a whole bunch of lawyers immediately began to construct a whole bunch of law suits.  After the 2008 vote, Prop 2 still had a long rocky road to travel before the 2015 implementation.  I’ll tell that story in my next post.

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