What passes as normal in the industry of egg production would horrify any compassionate person. Laying hens are in stacked cages, averaging 48-72 square inches of space. Because they can’t move, they peck at each other out of desperation. To solve this problem, producers sear off their beaks with no anesthetic–a practice which has been compared to cutting off our fingers, since for chickens, their beak is the way they interact with the world, the way they nibble on worms and pick up seeds–and it is full of nerve endings. After about one year of continuous laying, hens are exhausted and can no longer produce, so producers then leave them to a period of forced molting, which means they are starved and left to die. Those that survive will be fed again for a few more months of laying and will then be killed.
The European Union long ago made changes to the way laying hens are kept. Forced molting has long been illegal there and the hens have at least twice the space as their American cousins. Although United Egg Producers–the association representing most of the egg production in the U.S.–were well aware of Europe’s improvements, they recommended only minor changes, and were eventually exposed for consumer fraud and for using a logo–“animal care certified”–which was essentially meaningless.
This is the dark under belly of industrialization.
The question is, does “cage-free” make it better? And by better, I mean, for the hens. In addressing this question, the rather vague issue of labeling has to be sorted out. Firstly, “cage-free” doesn’t necessarily mean “free-range,” nor does it necessarily mean “cruelty-free.” “Free-range” indicates a situation in which animals are permitted to roam freely, generally in a grassy field, with access to fresh air and sunshine, as opposed to being confined to any kind of enclosure. Compounding the mess, is the fact that both the terms and the guidelines are often used at will.
Then there are “organic eggs” which just means they have to have some access at some time, to the outdoors. The problem here, is that this stipulation is rarely enforced and is overlooked when weather is deemed unsuitable or when disease by contact with other birds is feared. So, outdoor access becomes a theoretical order only, and the outdoor hatch is often sealed shut.
The term “cage-free,” is often used interchangeably with both “free-range” and “organic.” It is a convenient marketing tool, activists say. I learned about a high-volume industry with millions of birds in stacked cages; they kept a small group of hens aside, stamped those eggs “cage-free, and sold them for nearly double the price at the supermarket.
Are there any ethical eggs to be found? Yes and no, was the answer I was personally left with.
No, because, even in an idealized world, where standards are maintained and where workers aren’t desensitized to the fact that these are sentient beings, there is still the ghastly issue of slaughter. The labels don’t say anything about this, nor about the fact that it comes after only 56 weeks of laying, when hens are “spent.” And since they aren’t usable to the broiler industry, producers dispose of them, often in grisly ways. There is also the issue of the male chicks. We miss the obvious: Hens also lay eggs which produce male chicks…which don’t lay eggs. So, they are unwanted by the industry. And the broiler industry doesn’t want those either, since they are not bred to gain weight quickly. Large scale producers have been caught on film throwing them into the trash bins alive.
But in all fairness, there are mid-scale producers whose organically produced eggs are kept in better conditions. But better is just better – it is not ideal. They have more room, they are not pumped with antibiotics and they may or may not go outside.
Thankfully, there are small farmers who still keep their chickens the old-fashioned way, where they actually roam around, peck at worms and lay eggs naturally. So, yes, you can find ethical eggs, but not at a quantity that will feed the masses. Ethical eggs should come from chickens that have not been debeaked, have not been forced into molt by starvation, and can live out a normal lifespan. And their male offspring should not be killed. These are eggs that come from local farmers with limited production and the best place to find them is at your local farmers’ market.