Friday, September 18, 2009

The Cage Free Egg Debate

After encountering a short but fiery squabble over the virtues of free range chickens, I decided to do some research and shed a little light on the issue.

On more than one occasion, my cage free egg purchase has been met with a defiant declaration that “Cage free eggs are no better than regular eggs.” While raising chickens for profit almost always facilitates a degree of suffering, cage free appears to offer some tangible benefits for hens.

Check for the “Certified Humane” label. What does “Certified Humane” really mean? For free range hens, this deems that certain standards have been implemented:

· A well-drained and adequately tended outdoor area
· Ready access to the range from indoor areas
· Daily four hour minimum access to dust bathing area
· A grazing area with a suitable cover of vegetation
· Minimum of 2.5 acres per 1,000 birds
· Active parasite control management
· Access to overhead cover
· Shelter from extreme weather conditions

Beak trimming. Here’s the part that might make the sensitive squeamish. Will chickens peck each other more in a cage free environment than when caged? Apparently, yes. Humane farms opt for beak trimming rather than debeaking. The pain of beak trimming is lessened if performed before 10 days of age, and does not impede other processes such as feeding or preening. It appears this is a lesser-of-evils solution, but not ideal for animal lovers.

Europe agrees. The European Union is scheduled to ban all conventional battery cages by January 1, 2012. There is some debate over this issue as well, with farmers pushing for a delay and animal rights activists showing dissatisfaction over the questionable benefits of replacing battery cages with “enriched” cages. The good news is Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Finland, Norway and Austria have already banned the cages, with many of these countries moving steadily toward free range.

In short, factory farming using battery cages is clearly not humane. It remains to be seen whether the industry will rightly move toward more compassionate handling of our livestock. If you’re unsure of what to purchase, just remember that consumers drive the corporations, not the other way around. If we continue to purchase standard eggs, companies won’t have to think twice about the quality of life of their hens.

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