3.12.2012

a soapbox full of eggs

the way chickens ought to live.
good monday morning to you all. i have been writing for the past couple of months, on the side to longestacres about the more political part of farming. in particular, about animal welfare and animal rights and the general disregard factory farms have for these two. i wanted to share with you all a piece i have recently written about the new "egg bill" that will be put before congress this year. it is a bill sponsored by both the uep (united egg producers) and the humane society. there has been a lot of very optimistic and positive press about this in recent months and i wanted to be the debby downer to dissect it for you a bit and explain why 1) this is not a bill we should be happy or satisfied with 2) you should never buy eggs from the grocery store. 

so...if you would oblige me in reading. and giving me any feedback. and thinking of the chicken in her painfully small box when you go to buy eggs next. i would be forever grateful. 

***warning, i use capitalization AND punctuation in the following. it was written for somebody else and they insisted on both....typically you know, i wouldn't be so bold***
 
At first glance the new bill HR 3798 that will be brought in front of Congress this year, is a victory for animal rights advocates and their feathery friends. The bill, known as the Egg Products Inspection Act of 2012, is the result of an unprecedented compromise between the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the United Egg Producers (UEP).  The bill lists a set of improved living standards for laying hens in battery houses. It makes deplorable living conditions for the birds marginally better. It also sets in legislative stone the conditions the birds must live in for the duration of their lives. In other words, the passage of this bill, while seemingly progressive, allows the UEP to get away with minimal changes to their operation while broadcasting the support of the HSUS.

In order to understand the consequence of the bill let us first look at the lives of birds currently in confinement housing across the country. Over 250 million laying hens live in what are known as ‘battery’ houses in the United States. The houses are long, windowless, warehouses outfitted for confinement egg production. Most of these hens (such exact numbers are extraordinarily difficult to come by) live in cages that are hardly bigger than the hen’s body. She drinks, eats, sleeps and lays her egg in the same spot. She does this inside. Without seeing the light of day, or spreading her wings, or taking a dust bath. She doesn’t get to do much at all but live and work, briefly, for the pathetic state of our current food system. As confinement farming goes in this country she is a cog in its proverbial machine.  

Understandably, with conditions as inhumane as these organizations like the HSUS have fought vigorously against the UEP for years. The HSUS has supported undercover investigative reports in battery houses. They have stood behind legislative attempts in many states (most recently in California) to try to make the UEP treat their hens more humanely through legal channels.

The HSUS and the UEP have for all intents and purposes been each other’s classic nemesis.  But, recently, the UEP came to the HSUS with a proposed collaboration; they would make some concessions about the hen’s welfare in exchange for the HSUS backing off their attack on the egg industry. The UEP was reportedly concerned about the money and time they would waste fighting the HSUS state by state over the treatment of their hens. They decided that it would be in their interest to compromise with the HSUS on one national legislative change instead. When the UEP came to them with this proposed deal the HSUS saw this as perhaps one of their only realistic opportunities to better the lives of factory laying hens and thus was born HR 3798.

The problem is that the UEP gets away with legislative murder with this bill and the HSUS is humiliated with their concessions and with a partnership that is very clearly one sided.

Currently, factory laying hens, are allotted about 67 square inches of space. That is smaller than a sheet of paper.  A sheet of paper is typically 8.5” x 11”. That is 93.5 square inches. I encourage you to stop reading and study a piece of similarly sized paper. Could you imagine any creature living in that space for their entire life? HR 3798 is going to, 15 years after it’s enactment, require that laying hens have somewhere between 124 -144 square inches of floor space (depending on the breed of the hen). Taking the larger number, 144 square inches is one square foot. Not even the size of 2 sheets of paper.

One of my juvenile chickens (not yet, full grown) trying patiently to stand on 2 sheets of paper for 30 seconds. 144 square inches is NOT a lot of room.
There are other improvements they have put forth in this bill.  The bill will, if passed, require by law, that egg producers humanely euthanize their chickens when necessary. Another such improvement is the allotment of nesting boxes. This is important as hens prefer to nest in a small dark private place as opposed to the exposed and bright cage they currently lay in. They have also called for a sandbox of sorts in which the hen can dust bathe. With these additions their cages will be renamed “enriched” cages, and their cartons will be labeled as such.

Labeling is one of the final proposals in HR 3798. The proposed law would require egg manufactures to put on each carton how their chickens are raised. The labels would use a concise description such as eggs from cage free hens or eggs from free range hens or eggs from enriched cages. This is an important step to educating the consumer on how their food was raised. Sadly, a definition of each label is not included on the carton. Should a consumer read eggs from free range hens they may wrongly assume the hens live outdoors. They only have “access” to the outside, with typically, one door open at the end of a large and very crowded warehouse. The chickens that are fortunate enough to be perched next to this door may be able to venture outdoors but it is doubtful that many of the hens are ever able to go outside.

It pains me to speak out against the HSUS. The organization has done such good for so many animals all around this country. I don’t believe their intentions to be malicious with their compromise to the UEP. I believe they must be exhausted from a never ending fight with the egg industry and with every factory farming industry. But, this doesn’t mean we should praise them for any form of victory here. Nor, should we praise the UEP for reaching a ‘compromise’. We certainly shouldn’t praise this bill as a “good egg” like the LA Times did last month. This bill will do too little to change the lives of the hens.

If you’d like to speak out against the Egg Bill you can do so here. BUT I hope you, and I, and every egg-consumer in America will vote firstly with the dollars in our pockets.

Don't stand for enriched-caged e ggs or cage-free eggs or even free-range eggs. They're all bullshit. When you boil it all right down to it chickens are sentient animals. They deserve living conditions that no legislative measure will ever grant them the right to. They deserve fence-less green pasture. They deserve a warm and safe place to roost at night. They deserve clean water and simple, healthy grains. They deserve to flap their wings in an open space. To dust bathe in the dirt. To feel the restorative power of the sun on their combs and waddles. Sadly, no large scale egg operation will ever give chickens what they need and deserve. Only you and your neighbors and your local small farms can give them what they need.

So, don’t buy eggs from the grocery store. Buy eggs from farmer’s markets. Buy eggs from your neighbor. Get a couple of chickens and put them in your back yard and never buy eggs again. Ask around, you’ll be surprised at how many people you know have chickens or know somebody who has chickens and would be willing to sell you a dozen here and there. You don’t have to buy eggs from producers whose hen’s live in a 2-sheets-of-paper world.

The only way we can help these hens, and future hens, is to stop giving our grocery dollars to the big producers. Buy local. Love the chickens. Eat delicious eggs.

24 comments:

  1. That was an amazing, informative, and beautifully written piece. I had no idea of the atrocious conditions that even cage-free and free-range hens live in, and I'm ashamed to have bought into their propaganda. We as a society are so far removed fro our food sources... it never ceases to baffle and horrify me. Again, thank you for this piece. You've opened my eyes to a problem that I have been blind to.

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  2. Wonderful article. It seems it's difficult to get a clearer view of the food industry these days, and I always love to hear the side of small-scale food producers. I hope you can write a post someday on keeping chickens similar to your "Buying Cows" post?

    It's always been a dream of mine to have chickens when I own a home, and I'd love to hear about your experience.

    Mel

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  3. Well said. My fella and I live a vegetarian life, but free of eggs and dairy as well for the reasons you've spoken of here. In my past I have worked a few months at a sanctuary for rescued farm animals and been exposed to the lives they lived before their rescue and it is not something I want to support or be a part of. So, until we have our own backyard brood, it's tofu "egg" salad for us.

    I admire what you do!

    Sara

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  4. great post. i'm glad to read this here before seeing anything in the news because i tend to believe the best and would probably have thought those were good changes. i only buy eggs from a local farmer, whose happy free chickens i have seen, running around and eating bugs.

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  5. So smartly and beautifully written, Kate! I couldn't agree with you more! Sadly, I feel the organic and animal rights movements have gone astray in their original (good) intentions. Much of this, I believe, is when big agri-business entered the picture, claiming part of the movement as their own. Labeling is so very deceptive these days, meant to trick consumers into feeling as though they're buying ethically, with the price tag to prove it. You're so right - Change will come as more people become educated and vote first with their dollars. Thank you for the incredibly good work you do :)
    -Jaime

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  6. hey thanks for reading ladies!!

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  7. Very informative article, thank you! The picture of your juvenile chicken on the two sheets of paper is really eye opening, I will definitely share this with family and friends. I was wondering if you had an opinion on if someone IS going to continue buying eggs from grocery stores, is there a sort of lesser of the evils? Which labeling for grocery store eggs are the most humane in your opinion?

    I actually had chickens at my old place (they were my roommates but I sometimes chick-sat, but I moved out a few months ago, right when they started laying eggs unfortunately! After reading this I will definitely start buying at the farmers market though, thank you!

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  8. What a great article.

    My boyfriend and I are vegetarians as we are disgusted by the way animals are treated for their meat / eggs etc. It's so sad to think that people are happy for animals to suffer if it means their food is cheap.

    If people were more aware of where their food came from, battery farms and slaughter houses would soon be out of business and small independent farmers would see an increase in business.

    In the UK we have tight regulations but things still go on behind closed doors. I recently watched an extremely sad video of animals being abused before going to slaughter. It makes me sick!

    I'm glad you're bringing this problem to peoples attention.

    http://www.carlyandhe.blogspot.com/

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  9. Hi, I love this article, I am inspired to do some more research about Australian egg and meat labeling. We try to buy "free range" meat and eggs whenever possible, but its not enough really, our local farmers market sells eggs and meat, it's time to stock up!! Thanks!

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  10. This has given me so much food for thought. I thought I was doing good by buying "cage-free" eggs and whatnot, but I can see how that still is not good enough. I'm going to try to find a farmer's market to buy from now!

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  11. This is true! I have been so deprived of eggs because my "egg lady" is giving her "girls" a break!! I will not buy eggs from the store! Yuck!

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  12. Hi Kate,

    Outside of the disappointment with the HSUS for having sold themselves for so little, what also concerns me about these "grandious deals" that come about every so often (FSMA is a good one) is, in the end, they do very little to regulate the worst offenders (our industrialized food system) yet they can often regulate small farmers right out of production. Industrialized food is just that, an industry, and with that industry comes an industrial sized work force, industry lawyers, and industry politicians all of which work together to allow the industry to absorb what ever the new regulation du jour is without really changing the behavior. Meanwhile, small farms, who can't afford lawyers, or lobbyists, or even the time to fill out the appropriate paperwork are regulated right out of business.

    I haven't read this latest bit of legislation but to say i've seen it all before would be an understatement. The answer- don't buy food from strangers!

    Good luck in Vermont. Harold and Liza speak very highly of both you.

    -Hubert

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  13. Thank you for writing this! My family has chickens so I am lucky enough to receive eggs from chickens that I know are very well loved and cared for. Watching them roam around freely makes me feel SO sad for birds that are trapped in such miserable conditions.

    Because I have a source for eggs I feel good about, sometimes I forget to pay attention to what's happening with these larger issues. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

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  14. As the happy new owner of three lovely hens, I was particularly upset by the content in this post. Thank you for bringing awareness about this cause to your readers. Here's a look at our ladies.
    http://modernmommy.tumblr.com/post/19077603735

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  15. I love your passion Kate. It makes me want to go out and do something good, make something better. I am now happily buying eggs from my neighbor, no more store bought eggs for this girl!

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  16. I whole-heartily agree with this! I actually grew up with a big brood of chickens and loved it, then we moved when I was a teenager and we didn't have room for chickens so my mom started buying store eggs. Now that I have 2 chickens of my own again I will NEVER go back to buying store chickens! tons of people nearby have chickens and there's no reason to support the large scale egg places!

    love your blog!

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  18. Well spoken, Kate;
    this piece is so wonderfully articulated,
    I had to share it on my FB page.

    I love yours and Nick's graceful passion and commitment to your work.

    Thank you for carrying on with your good work.

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  19. great words kate. 3 cheers for you for writing this!

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  20. Great article. Interesting to read about this issue in a different country. I live in the Netherlands, and a few years ago the sale of battery eggs became prohibited. Back then, I thought that was wonderful. But when I learned what "free range" really means (or better yet, doesn't mean), I was shocked. Everybody feels so good buying freerange eggs, not knowing that it means nothing at all. The only eggs that come close to being what free range sounds like, are organic. I love articles like this showing more people what's really going on.

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  21. That was a great post. Thanks for sharing. =)

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  22. hey kate,

    we gave up grocery store eggs long ago, our eggs come from happy chickens now.

    i have been following you fora while but since i saw this, i needed to chime in. i am in canada but the story isn't much different here either. i re-posted this letter to my CSA's blog where it will reach about 100+ CSA members. (of course - if you have any issues with this i will take it down again no problem.)

    http://kawarthacsa.com/blog/

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