Cage-free and free-range hens have a much better life than their sisters confined in battery cages, but there are still two things that egg-eaters concerned with animal welfare must keep in mind.
Like battery hens, every commercially raised cage-free or free-range hen will be sent to slaughter. No matter the housing system, it’s never commercially viable to keep hens who are more than two or three years old.
Cage-free and free-range farms purchase layer chicks from the same commercial factories that supply battery facilities. These hatcheries grind up or smother their day-old male chicks, since, being bred for egg laying, they won’t gain sufficient weight to be worth raising for meat.
This week, the Cornucopia Institute released a report assessing the welfare standards at organic facilities. It’s odd that they’ve focused on “organic” eggs, rather than eggs labeled “cage-free.” But virtually all organic eggs also bear a cage-free or free-range label since the organic regulations require some semblance of outdoor access, meaning the birds are at least cage-free.
In any event, the authors considered the welfare standards of dozens of organic egg producers, and have published a scorecard assessing their welfare standards and transparency. The companies were ranked on a scoring system of one to five eggs. At the bottom of the scorecard are companies who refused to share with Cornucopia researchers any information about their housing and welfare standards.
Some of these lowest ranked eggs are private label brands sold by Costco, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and Safeway.
The information in the scorecard, along with the study’s accompanying Executive Summary [PDF], should give pause to anyone who thinks that their conscience should rest easy if they simply look for a cage-free label on egg cartons. I’ve written many times that anyone who consumes animal products has a moral obligation to do more than read labels; to get a clear sense of a producer’s welfare standards you’ve got to actually visit the farm. This new Cornucopia study proves my point.
Right now, we have a situation where many cage-free producers want to keep getting premium prices for their eggs, while avoiding transparency and tightened welfare standards. One was even quoted by Cornucopia as saying:
The push for continually expanding outdoor access…needs to stop, and I believe that the proposed standards have gone too far.
Luckily, it’s easy to never give these guys another dime; just avoid eggs altogether. Buy an easy egg-free cookbook, check out a free online guide to egg-free cooking, read a bit on how to shift toward vegan foods, and away you go.