The animal welfare community and the animal-food-producing industry have never been great friends. In fact, bitter enemies would be closer to the truth.
So it came as quite a shock when, on July 10, 2011, the Humane Society of the United States and the United Egg Producers (a voluntary federation of egg-producers in the United States) entered into a landmark agreement to begin to improve the lives of egg-producing chickens.
With Humane Society President and Chief Executive Officer Wayne Pacelle in the lead, the United Egg Producers agreed to some incremental and long ranging changes in the way egg-producing hens are treated.
Currently the least protected of farm animals, chickens are not covered by any Animal Welfare Acts and also are exempt from individual state laws prohibiting cruelty to animals and the federal Humane Methods of Slaughter Act.
As such, chickens are open “game” with regard to their treatment by the egg producing industry. More than 90-percent of egg-laying hens in the United States are housed for life in battery cages. These wire cages only allow approximately 67 square inches of space for several hens packed into the same space.
The failure to provide adequate space prohibits all instinctive or natural behaviors including roosting, dust bathing and, in particular, nesting. Hens instinctively search for private space to lay eggs often crawling under other hens in a valiant search for privacy.
Now, according to a press release from the HSUS, the HSUS and the United Egg Producers will “work together toward the enactment of comprehensive new federal legislation for all 280 million hens involved in U.S. egg production.”
For instance, the proposed legislation will:
- require battery cages be replaced through an ample phase-in period, with new, enriched housing systems that will provide each hen nearly double the amount of space they’re currently allotted. Egg producers will invest an additional $4 billion over the next 15 years to effect this industry-wide make-over;
- require that all egg-laying hens be provided, through the new enriched housing system, with environments that will allow hens to express natural behaviors, such as perches, nesting boxes, and scratching areas;
- mandate labeling on all egg cartons nationwide to inform consumers of the method used to produce the eggs, such as “eggs from caged hens,” “eggs from hens in enriched cages,” “eggs from cage-free hens,” and “eggs from free-range hens”;
- prohibit feed or water-withholding molting to extend the laying cycle, a practice already prohibited by the United Egg Producers Certified program adhered to by a majority of egg farmers.
Although the new agreement may not provide chickens with the ultimate in much-needed expanded space, it “could set a precedent for the cattle/pig/lamb/calf, etc. farmers to follow suit and improve the quality of life of their livestock," according to Newtown resident Susan Kososka, owner of a small chicken flock. "It also helps to elevate the status of food animals and that's good for the general public to see in that they may start to see animals in general in a different light. All my chickens are pets. Around here, if I have my own way, they will all die of old age.”
This agreement also will give consumers a clearer understanding of the confusing labeling now found on commercially packaged eggs. Currently, there are so many different labels on packaged egg cartons it’s almost impossible to determine what they mean.
Here’s where it stands right now:
Certified Humane: The Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC) is a non-profit organization that certifies the humane treatment of animals raised by meat, poultry, egg or dairy producers. There are only a few egg producers (about 1-percent) who are certified to carry their label.
The label indicates “no cages” and with hens having at least 1.5 square feet of floor space with outside access. Doors to the outside "must allow more than one hen at a time to exit". Forced molting, where hens nearly at the end of their laying are deprived to food, water, and light for days to weeks to produce one more bout of egg-laying is prohibited.
Cage free: This doesn’t necessarily mean that the quality of life for hens is perfect. They can be packed into massive sheds with only a tiny opening to the outdoors. There are no regulations about space requirements inside or out.
Organic certified: Usually means that the hens have access to the outdoors, are fed organic feed with no antibiotics.
Free-range: This means the chickens are allowed to roam outdoors. However, detractors point out that in many instances the doors to the hen sheds are kept closed until the chicks reach an age where they would not choose to go out on their own.
Organic eggs: There are federal regulations governing organic labels. The chickens must be fed organic feed (grown without commercial fertilizers or pesticides), and are not given hormones or antibiotics. However, this label has nothing to do with how the animals are kept.
Confused? So am I. But we live in area where we can do something about this. You can buy a flock of chickens or, easier still, stop on the side of the road in any of several spots in town and buy eggs direct from the local farms.
Not only are they fresh, but you’ll be supporting the local farmers, who treat their chickens well, like Kokoska says, they are “living, breathing beings and as such, deserve as good a quality of life as we can give them.”