CAGE FREE EGGS. What are you paying for and ARE THEY BETTER?

Written by a CHICKEN- RAISING, Very GREEN, GENTLEMAN FARMER, a piece found when I googled "cage-free" and one other word, 'advertising', with a + sign between them.
Cage-free eggs are the latest forefront in the constant PR campaign of many leading retail companies to be seen as the humanest, the most animal-friendly, the most vigilant about the health of its products. As indication of the bigness of this particular buzz-phrase, several weeks ago, Burger King Holdings Inc. (NYSE: BKC) announced a switch to both cage-free eggs and pork products. So important is the issue that when Portland, Oregon fast food chain Burgerville broadcast their own switch to cage-free, local media cried, when will Starbucks Corporation (NASDAQ: SBUX) switch all the eggs in its products (including its popular breakfast sandwiches) to cage-free?

The answer could be far more muddled than (for instance) the coffee giant's recent changeover to hormone-free milk or trans-fat-free baked goods. Here's the thing: it's not necessarily assured that cage-free eggs are the be-all and end-all of chicken humanity. And the costs go far beyond a little extra space.

This is not to say that I disagree with cage-free eggs, quite the contrary: I recently began raising chickens (Bella, Mathilda and Twitter are now six weeks old, and were recently joined by baby "sisters" Gilda and Genevieve) much because of the considerable health and taste benefits of cage-free eggs. Ideally (and in my own backyard), chickens who are not confined to cages get more exercise and a more balanced diet, including greens (they love blackberry and dandelion leaves). The eggs are therefore packed with good vitamins, making the yolks more orange and the shells sturdier -- whether brown, white, or pinkish.

But not all cage-free chickens are raised equally. "My chickens are spoiled already, and they won't lay eggs until August. Not so the chickens in large cage-free farms -- even the smaller, "better" ones. Doing away with cages may triple the value of a dozen eggs but it could also triple the cost; chickens are more likely to catch diseases when allowed to mingle, for one thing (and we're also trying to stay away from excessive antibiotics these days).

And there's another thing: cages keep chickens (not exactly the most even-keeled animals) from turning on one another. In close quarters and under poor conditions, chickens can become cannibalistic. In order to minimize this possibility -- after all, cage-free does not necessarily mean "freely roaming outdoors" -- chickens are kept in dim lighting and often have their beaks de-hooked so they won't harm one another if they start pecking.

All this is expensive, and what's more, questionable -- are chickens who are (as some activists say) mutilated a few days after birth and kept confined in huge barns under unnatural conditions, making them prone to disease, any better off than those in cages?

It's a tough question, and although I started buying cage-free eggs as soon as I brought home my chicks and and watched with delight as they chased each other for a yummy green treat, I'm not convinced that cage-free is the solution. (In fact, I'm convinced that my solution -- keeping pampered chickens in your backyard -- is by far the superior choice.) Will Starbucks change to cage-free eggs? Will cage-free be the next hormone-free? The answer is yet to come."


There is a wonderful article in the Wednesday, December 4, New York Times "Advocates for Animals Turn Attention to Chickens." The  piece, by Elizabeth Becker, focuses on the rescue of ten chickens from an  egg farm in Maryland, by the DC based group "Compassion Over Killing."

Becker writes, "Members of the group court arrest by entering chicken sheds  at night and filming the rows of hens crammed 10 to a cage the size of a  file-drawer cabinet. They get close-ups of swollen eyes, infected skin and  shattered wings entangled in cage wire." The industry is taking animal protection activism seriously:

"Earlier this year the United Egg Producers, a trade group representing 85  percent of the country's egg producers, issued revised guidelines in  response to the complaints of animal welfare groups. The industry promised  to increase gradually the size of the enclosed wire cages it uses, known as  battery cages, by 30 to 40 percent; improve procedures for trimming chickens' beaks; and figure out how to force chickens to molt, which  induces them to lay more eggs, without starving them for several  days....Both animal rights activists and the industry point to Europe as  the model for their moves. European animal welfare advocates in recent  years have won sweeping changes, including a ban on forced molting and a  gradual ban on the battery cages used in the United States."

We learn that Al Pope, head of the United Egg Producers trade association  "tried to head off such sweeping changes by establishing less radical  guidelines." The article provides an amusing quote from Pope, who seems to  suggest that he heads up a welfare agency for human and nonhuman animals, rather than a trade association:

"We will live or die on what's best for the bird and best for the  consumer."

There is a nice quote from COK's Miyun Park, who says her greatest ally is
public opinion: "Most consumers still think eggs come from hens who walk
around with their little chicks following in a row."

The article ends on a touching note as Miyun Park and COK's founder Paul
Shapiro let the hens "walk on the earth for the first time."

"'Are you guys ready to touch ground?' Mr. Shapiro asked. "

You can read the full New York Times article at:

The page includes a sweet photo of Miyun Park holding one of the rescued

You can learn more about Compassion Over Killing at:
and more about this egg farm investigation in particular, and see lots of
photos, at:

Please help increase the attention brought to this issue by writing a
letter to the editor regarding the need to change the way society treats
chickens, farmed animals in general, or about our whole relationship with
those of other species. You may like to write about the pleasures of a diet
devoid of animal products and animal suffering.

Karen Dawn

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If YOU and your friends demand it, cruelty-free animal raising will have to happen. SEE "HOW TO" below