On animal labor: Chicken cages as sweatshops

Readers, I’m going to ask you to give me a little room on this one. I’m not quite sure this will sound right, but it’s been on my mind for a couple of weeks…

Battery cages

Two Sundays ago, the New York Times devoted a nearly a full page to a photo story about changing factory farm conditions for egg-laying hens.   The piece, “A Hen’s Space to Roost” by Bill Marsh, broke my heart a little.  It included a big color photograph of a “battery cage,” the tiny cages in which the hens live out their lives in spaces of about 7 by 7 inches per bird. Some 97% percent of the eggs produced in the U.S. are from birds confined in these cages.

They go insane

Not mentioned in the Times article is the fact that these caged hens often go insane.  Many of us who enjoy eggs and poultry have rationalized our habits by assuming that chickens are next to brainless.  But that’s not the case.  As animal researchers, animal rights advocates, and folks who simply observe animals will attest, chickens have personalities and form bonds with one another.  When they are warehoused in cages that allow them hardly any movement, they can lose their minds.

Slightly better

As the Times reports, even the hens housed in “cage-free” conditions (representing 2 percent of eggs produced in the U.S.) aren’t exactly living it up. They are kept in huge barns that allot them an average of 12 by 12 inches per bird.

Only the “free-range” hens enjoy anything resembling the kind of idyllic farm life we might imagine.

It’s about the money

According to the Times article, here are average store prices for a dozen eggs: Hens in battery cages, less than a dollar, white or brown; cage-free hens, $2.37 (white) and $3.33 (brown); free-range hens, $3.66 brown organic.

Public health impacts

In his column today, Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff added public health to the list of concerns associated with battery cages:

Inspections of Iowa poultry farms linked to the salmonella outbreak have prompted headlines about infestations with maggots and rodents. But the larger truth is: industrial agriculture is itself unhealthy.

Repeated studies have found that cramming hens into small cages results in more eggs with salmonella than in cage-free operations. As a trade journal, World Poultry, acknowledged in May: “salmonella thrives in cage housing.”

At the store, choices and dilemmas

So..are battery cages the equivalent of sweatshops for animals, or even worse? Are the public health concerns associated with them the animal equivalent of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle at the turn of the last century?

Sweatshops, after all, are about the exploitation of labor to make money. And these animals are being horribly exploited for our benefit.

I’m not claiming that chickens should be elevated to human status in terms of how we treat them. (While I’ve managed to cut down on my consumption of meat and poultry considerably, I have been unable to make the full transition to vegetarianism.) Also, I get the virtues of thrift, especially now, with millions struggling to put food on their tables.

That said, we should not forget that animals live and labor in harsh, at times intolerable conditions so that we can pay less money at the cash register. As we strive to create a more humane and sustainable society, we should keep these concerns in mind.

5 responses

  1. There is a woman veterinarian with a form of autism, Temple Grandin, DVM, who has studied and published on making lives less stressful for animals which will be shortly butchered. It seems a bit self-contradictory, but I have heard a couple of stories on NPR and she makes a great deal of sense to me.

  2. Fabulous writing, Mr. Yamada,
    Many people ARE not aware of the deplorable conditions chickens, which are still living creatures, are forced to dwell.

    Many believe the chickens live like those on Green Acres. Nice spacey coops. Living a life of leisure, bartering an egg, for food and shelter.

    Not so. The net has a wealth of VIDEOS revealing the REAL living conditions of the majority of chickens, whose eggs end up on YOUR breakfast table, or in your scrumptious crème brulée.

    The masses need to be educated, or at least open their eyes. Thank you for taking the time to share and care about what still does amount to a living creature. More in this world should do the same.

    “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”
    — Mahatma Gandhi

  3. Thanks for posting this! I find it abhorrent that humans can allow the torture of animals just so they can have cheap food. This is inexcusable. And factory farming _is_ animal torture. But somehow when it comes cellophane wrapped normally lovely and kind people find it easy to turn a blind eye.

  4. Don, Coco, and Kirstie, thank you for your comments. I thought it was a stretch for me to use this blog — normally devoted to human labor — to the plight of animals, but then I realized there’s a connection in ways I hadn’t thought of.

    Don, I’ve read some of Temple Grandin’s work. I’m actually thankful there are people writing about animal rights who are not pure vegetarians because try as I have, I can’t completely make the jump.

    Coco, yes, the videos are powerful. While PETA gets a bad rap at times, it was a PETA video that led me to cut down my consumption of red meat and poultry dramatically…as in from 2-3x a day to a few times a week.

    Kirstie, it took me a long time to see this as torture. But the more I become aware of the remarkable abilities of animals to sense and perceive — often in ways greater than humans — I start to get it. The lives of those poor chickens are horrible.

    So…what to do? I made every effort not to sound judgmental in this post, because I know the powerful norms we’re dealing with and it’s hardly my place to be preaching to anyone about this. Also, I’m gainfully employed and I can afford to pay $3.69 for 6 free-range eggs at the local organic food store instead of $1.00 a dozen at the supermart, whereas a struggling family has to make every dollar count.

  5. I was sent to work in an abattoir as a relief occupational nurse. I was given a tour on my first day – I saw how the animals were treated and how the animals knew what was happening to them and I haven’t eaten meat since. Humans are an animal species and how we treat other species, as the quote above by Mahatma Gandhi points out clearly, shows our moral compass. We will never treat each other well until we care for our co-inhabitants and our beautiful planet.

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