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…
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.
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.