The other costs of your Egg McMuffin

The University can join other institutions by pledging to use only eggs from hens raised “cage-free” in its dining halls and food courts.

Most of us grew up eating eggs, and chances are great that we rarely, if ever, think twice about where they came from. If it does happen to cross our minds that our omelets and scrambled eggs had come from chickens, we likely picture carefree hens pecking about at Old MacDonald’s Farm, straight out of the children’s books we all remember. At least that’s what the egg industry would have us believe.

The reality is that egg production has morphed from small family farms into mechanized factories. While some take pride in this industrial evolution, the modern egg industry doesn’t have much to boast – except for being one of the most notoriously abusive systems to animals.

In the United States, more than 95 percent of egg-laying hens are intensively confined inside massive factory farms, unable to engage in many of their natural behaviors, such as foraging, dust bathing, perching, nesting and even walking. They never escape the stench of their own feces or feel the earth under their feet.

Chickens in the egg industry are abused right from birth. Because male chicks cannot produce eggs and are different breeds than those chickens raised for meat, millions each year are considered unwanted byproducts and are discarded, either thrown into trash bins to suffocate, gassed, or ground up alive. Female chicks have parts of their beaks sliced off without any anesthesia, a mutilation shown by scientific research to cause both acute and chronic pain.

Once able to lay eggs, the hens are intensively confined in wire mesh “battery cages” too small for them to even spread their wings. Indeed, the amount of cage space allotted to each bird to live out her entire life is smaller than a sheet of paper. Frustrated, overcrowded and so severely restricted inside the tiny cages, these hens suffer immensely.

After a year of laying eggs, they’re not afforded a reprieve. Instead, they are often starved for up to two weeks in order to shock their bodies into yet another egg-laying cycle.

This abusive treatment continues even as evidence mounts that avian intelligence has been drastically underestimated for decades. Although many people might be surprised, scientists increasingly believe that avian brains are as complex and inventive as mammalian brains. Birds make and use tools, form intricate hierarchical social structures and even express reciprocal altruism. Yet, we treat chickens – the most prevalent bird the United States – as if they were unfeeling machines.

The egg industry has proven that it can’t be trusted to make meaningful welfare improvements to reduce the suffering of the close to 300 million birds housed in factory farms. Legislation is needed when industry fails to regulate itself.

The European Union has approved the plan to begin phasing out battery cages in 2009, and prominent U.S. legislators have recently spoken out against the cruelties inherent in egg factory farming, as well. Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., said on the floor of the U.S. Senate, “Egg-laying hens are confined to battery cages. Unable to spread their wings, they are reduced to nothing more than an egg-laying machine.” Matthew Scully, former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, has proposed a Humane Farming Act, which would include a ban on the use of battery cages.

Legislation is only one antidote to remedying the many ills of egg factory farms. As consumers, we must understand that our purchasing decisions have consequences that shouldn’t be ignored. When we buy eggs from caged birds, we are implicitly supporting the very practices that no reasonable person could fine humane. The level of suffering and cruelty in egg factory farming is too high a price to pay for caged eggs.

As horrific as their lives are, the millions of U.S. hens confined in battery cages do have some reason for hope. Working with the nation’s largest animal advocacy organization, The Humane Society of the United States, several universities have recently phased out their use of eggs from caged birds.

The University can join these schools and compassionate consumers by pledging to use only cage-free eggs in its dining halls and phasing out those eggs that come from caged birds. By doing so, the University would clearly demonstrate that they take animal welfare seriously and want to take a leading role in the growing effort against battery-cage egg production.

Each one of us has the ability to make a difference for laying hens. Let the egg industry know that we won’t continue to support its routine disregard for animal welfare.

Josh Balk is an outreach coordinator for The Humane Society of the United States. Please send comments to [email protected]