Egg Cruelty Finally in the Spotlight

excerpt from The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter by Peter Singer and Jim Mason

The carton of Country Creek eggs that Jake Hillard picked up at WalMart carried the name Moark Productions, one of America's largest producers of eggs. It also bore a red seal saying Animal Care Certified. We asked Jake if the seal signified anything to her. "Well, it seemed to imply that they followed some standard of humane animal care," she said. "I get the general impression that the chickens are cared for better than by some companies, but I don't know by how much."

Jake's vagueness about the Animal Care Certified seal wasn't surprising. Most Americans know little about how their eggs are produced. They don't know that American egg-producers typically keep their hens in bare wire cages, often crammed eight or nine hens to a cage so small that they never have room to stretch even one wing, let alone both. The space allocated per hen, in fact, is even less than broiler chickens get, ranging from 48 to 72 square inches. Even the higher of these figures is less than the size of a standard American sheet of typing paper. In such crowded conditions, stressed hens tend to peck each other -- and the sharp beak of a hen can be a lethal weapon when used relentlessly against weaker birds unable to escape. To prevent this, producers routinely sear off the ends of the hens' sensitive beaks with a hot blade -- without an anesthetic.

As for the cages themselves, they are in long rows, sometimes stacked three and four tiers high. That way, in a single building, tens of thousands of hens can be fed, watered, and have their eggs collected by machines. Artificial lighting is used to mimic the longest days of summer, to induce the hens to lay the maximum number of eggs all year round. A year of this leaves the hens debilitated, and they start to lay fewer eggs. Many American producers then cut off their food and starve them for as long as two weeks until they go into molt, which means they lose their feathers and cease to lay eggs. Some die during this period, and the survivors lose about 30 percent of their body weight. They are then fed again, and their laying resumes for a few more months before they are killed.

Although animal advocates have been describing these conditions since the 1970s, until recently the American media have ignored them. That is changing, and much of the credit for that change must go to Paul Shapiro and Miyun Park, two young activists who at the time ran an organization called Compassion Over Killing. Paul learned about factory farms when he was 14 years old, and he started COK as a club at his high school. The club outgrew high school and attracted volunteers, among them Park, who became president a year later. The two led fur protests, sit-ins, and plenty of in-your-face street activism.

Troubled by the knowledge that within a 100-mile radius of where they lived millions of hens were suffering in cages, unseen by the people who bought the eggs the hens laid, Shapiro and Park tried a different tactic. In 2001 they began driving around rural Maryland locating egg factory farms by day and entering them with video cameras by night. Their videos show dead hens rotting in cages, hens with necks and feet caught in the wire mesh, and hens who had fallen into the manure pit beneath the batteries of cages. They also show COK members gently holding sick and injured birds and taking them away to get veterinary care. This was powerful stuff, and it won Park and Shapiro the attention of writers at The Washington Post. The paper's expose opened the door for a string of favorable stories about COK's open rescues in The New York Times and other national media.

Throughout the media brouhaha, no COK members were ever charged with trespassing or theft of birds, presumably because the egg companies did not want to acknowledge that the videos had been taken in their sheds. There was something different about this kind of animal welfare activism, and it helped win the sympathy of the media. Shapiro explains it like this: "We were regular people who were acting in the only decent way that you could when faced with such egregious cruelty. We weren't damaging property, we weren't hiding our identities. We just simply went in there and videotaped ourselves providing aid to sick and injured animals."

Once Shapiro and Park had opened up the issue, reporters had no difficulty in finding credible experts who could attest to the conditions inside the egg factories. McDonald's has called Dr. Temple Grandin, a "preeminent animal behavior expert" and taken her advice on animal welfare issues. About the egg industry; she was characteristically plain spoken:

When I visited a large egg layer operation and saw old hens that had reached the end of their productive life, I was horrified. Egg layers bred for maximum egg production and the most efficient feed conversion were nervous wrecks that had beaten off half their feathers by constant flapping against the cage . . . The more I learned about the egg industry the more disgusted I got. Some of the practices that had become "normal" for this industry were overt cruelty. Bad had become normal. Egg producers had become desensitized to suffering.

United Egg Producers, the industry trade association representing most of the country's egg production, was concerned about the bad publicity the egg industry was getting. Its experts must also have been well aware that the entire European Union -- twenty-five nations, with a much larger population of both humans and hens than the United States -- was in the process of phasing out the battery cage, insisting that all hens have a place to perch, litter to scratch in, a nesting box to lay their eggs in, and about twice the space that most U.S. hens are granted. As for starving hens in order to force them to molt, that had long been illegal in the European Union. But United Egg Producers didn't recommend that its members follow Europe's example. It opted for a few minor changes and plenty of spin. Egg producers who followed a new set of voluntary guidelines would be allowed to stamp their egg cartons with a colorful seal stating that the eggs were "Animal Care Certified."

But the new guidelines were only a marginal improvement on the existing situation. They allowed each hen 67 square inches of space -- by 2008. Dr. Joy Mench, professor of animal science at the University of California, Davis, and a member of UEP's own Advisory Committee, is on record as calling 80 inches a "meager" space allowance that is "barely enough for the hen to turn around and not enough for her to perform normal comfort behaviors." The UEP program also permits producers to continue to sear off part of the beaks of their chickens with a hot blade, without pain relief. A chicken's beak is its major organ for interacting with the ground and for picking up seeds or worms, and it is full of nerve endings. Professor Ian Duncan, who holds a chair of animal welfare at the Department of Animal and Poultry Science at the University of Guelph, Ontario, and has done decades of research on the welfare of chickens, says that "beak trimming leads to both chronic and acute pain." When asked on National Public Radio what she thought about the procedure, UEP's advisor Professor Joy Mench pointed out that for chickens, their beak is their main way of exploring, touching, and feeling things. "So," the interviewer asked, "cutting off the beak is a big deal, if you're a hen?" Mench replied: "It's definitely a big deal."

At the time of Jake's egg purchase, the UEP "Animal Care Certified" guidelines also permitted starving birds to make them molt. It doesn't really take an expert to say that this is going to make them suffer. In the National Public Radio interview, Mench didn't resort to scientific jargon: "The bird is starved. Yes, the bird is starved. I don't like to see hungry animals not being given food."

Finally, we shouldn't forget that the eggs that produce laying hens also produce equal numbers of male chicks. Since male chicks don't lay eggs, the egg industry doesn't want them. The broiler industry doesn't want them either, for they are not bred to gain weight rapidly, as broiler chickens are. Temple Grandin discovered what many hatcheries do with them: "They were throwing live animals in the dumpster to get rid of them. I was going, 'What? They were doing what?' Nobody would throw a live calf in a dumpster. These people forgot this is a live animal." The UEP guidelines don't require producers to avoid buying from hatcheries that use this method of disposing of male chicks.

In 2002, when UEP announced that they would release a set of standards for animal welfare, Paul Shapiro and Miyun Park were hopeful. "We were naive enough," Shapiro says, "to think that they might voluntarily reform. Then we read the guidelines and saw that they would permit barren battery cages, beak searing, and forced molting through starvation." Now Shapiro and Park were even more outraged than before: "This was not just a case of animal cruelty, it had become a case of consumer fraud," Shapiro says. So they decided to go back to some of the egg farms where they had done their open rescues a year or so before. "We knew what the conditions were like back then and now here they are 'Animal Care Certified', so we thought, 'OK let's see if there's been any change'. We found the conditions were exactly the same. There is no noticeable difference between the photos of 2003 and those of 2001."

In June 2003, COK filed petitions with the Better Business Bureau objecting to UEP'S "Animal Care Certified" logo as false advertising. After examining documents submitted by UEP and COK, the Better Business Bureau ruled that the "Animal Care Certified" seal was misleading and should be discontinued. The egg trade group appealed, but the appeal board upheld the earlier ruling. More months passed, and UEP made no changes in its "Animal Care Certified" program. In August 2004, the Better Business Bureau determined that UEP was failing to comply with its ruling and formally referred the matter to the Federal Trade Commission for law enforcement action.

The pressure on the egg producers was mounting. In May 2005, UEP announced that it was recommending that egg producers switch to a molting process that does not involve starving hens and that this recommendation would, from January 1, 2006, become a requirement of a new animal care certification program. Producers should use a feed with lower protein levels instead of taking away food entirely, UEP now said. Then, in September 2005, after being "encouraged" by the Federal Trade Commission to do more, the egg trade body announced it was dropping the "animal care certified" logo and replacing it with one saying "United Egg Producers Certified: Produced in compliance with UEP animal husbandry guidelines." That may be literally accurate, but many consumers will still assume it means good animal welfare, when the truth is very far from that.

Reprinted from: The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter by Peter Singer and Jim Mason. Permission granted by Rodale, Inc., Emmaus, PA 18098.

Copyright © 2006 Peter Singer and Jim Mason