Sunday, 10 July 2011

I buy free-range eggs. So there's no problem, right?

A Wild Chicken
Despite having eaten plenty of them in my lifetime, I've always found eggs a little disturbing.  I mean, think about what an egg is, and think about what the human equivalent might be, and then think about eating that human equivalent.  Now do you feel like eating frittata tonight?  But I continued to eat eggs, partly out of habit and convenience, and partly because I couldn't really see a reason not to eat them.

Well, I've found some reasons.

Most of you probably already know what's wrong with battery farm eggs.  We've seen the images of the tiny cages, the dark, dismal barns, and the crowds of birds smothering each other, often resulting in injury and death.  We all know that in these systems, injured birds often go unnoticed, and are left to die a slow death while being trampled on by other birds.  We all know that sometimes the corpses of these birds are not removed quickly, disturbing and distressing the other birds, and spreading disease.

We all know that a hen living in one of the cramped cages will often suffer from osteoporosis, broken bones, and sores on her body.  We know that, despite being a very social animal, she will be cut off from any contact with other birds.  We know that the feces from other birds will drop down on her constantly.  We know that she will never see daylight.

You all ready have all of this information, so I didn't need to tell you. When I first saw the images of caged hens, I did the same thing a lot of other people did.  I felt a wave of guilt, and started buying free range eggs instead. I thought the problem was largely solved.  Was it?  Is there a problem with free-range eggs?

Well, for starters, although hens would normally live more than 10 years, in the egg-laying industry they are considered spent (a charming expression) after 1-2 years, and are sent to die an unimaginably cruel death in a slaughterhouse.  Just as with the dairy industry, the egg industry props up the meat industry, and anyone who has a problem with the meat industry must qualifying have a problem with the egg industry.

Unbeknownst to many, the free-range label also doesn't mean a heck of a lot.  In the USA, in order to label their eggs free-range, a farm simply has to open a window or a door for some part of the day.  The cramped conditions can remain the same, the unbearable temperatures can remain the same, everything else stays the same.  Does anyone really think that the hens care or even notice whether or not a window is open?  In Canada, there is no regulation whatsoever on what gets labelled free-range.

In the UK, regulations are a little stricter, but the living (and dying) conditions for these birds are still a cruel joke.  Under UK law, free-range birds supposedly have access to the outside throughout the day, and under European Union law, each bird must have 4 square metres of space in the open-air range.  Inside the barn, hens may be "stocked" (another charming expression) at a density of 9 hens per square metre.

In free-range systems, there are several factors that make regulations ineffective. The first of these factors should be obvious: farmers don't always do what they are told.  Undercover investigations have shown farms that proudly proclaim the term free-range, or even Freedom Food stamps from the RSPCA, blatantly disregarding the rules of these terms, keeping the birds in cramped conditions, failing to remove the corpses of dead birds, and allowing injury and disease to run rampant.  

Undercover operations have taken video footage of some of these farms, and some of that footage is available for you to see.  The UK group Viva! and Sky News have done an expose on a free range farm here.  Five News has done an expose on a free range farm in Norfolk that can be found here, and the sanctuary Peaceful Prairie has done a video on free-range farming in the US that can be found here.

A Wild Hen and Her Chicks
Although chickens are social animals, the flocks that farms keep them in are unnaturally large, and large flocks result in aggression in some of the birds.  Aggressive birds will often guard the opening to the open air range, stopping other birds from getting outside, and keeping them in the cramped conditions indoors.  As a consequence, many of the birds will rarely, if ever, see the outdoors.

Another consequence of aggression in these birds is a tendency towards pecking, which is not as cute as it sounds.  Aggressive birds will give other hens sores and defeather them by pecking at them.  They may also engage in cannibalistic behaviour that sometimes causes these birds to wound other birds fatally.  This destructive pecking is stereotypic behaviour that occurs because of the stressful conditions the birds are kept in; it is not natural behaviour.

In order to combat pecking, one of the cruelest practices in chicken egg farming is almost universally used in free range systems.  At a young age, each hen will have her beak seared off with a hot blade.  Hen's beaks have a large nerve supply, and debeaking is a painful process that will often stop a hen from engaging in natural behaviour such as preening, indicating that she feels the pain of the hot blade long after the procedure has been completed.

Rats, mice, and red mite infestations can run rampant in free range systems, causing panic in flocks, often leading to hens been trampled and suffocating to death.  These infestations spread disease, and make the hens stressed, increasing aggressive pecking behaviour.  
In our society, baby chicks are admired not only for their fuzzy and adorable appearance, but also as symbols of innocence, youth, and spring fertility.  Most people would agree that to hurt one of these sweet birds would be an act of incredible brutality.  But what happens to these male chicks is perhaps the most shocking aspect of egg farming, and this aspect is something that occurs across the board in every single kind of egg farm: battery farms, free range farms, or organic farms.  Considered useless by the egg-farming industry, each male chick is killed at one to two days old.  Many are killed by being thrown alive into a macerator that grinds them alive.  Many are gassed to death.  Many are killed by being thrown alive into a garbage and left to suffocate.  

If you feel compelled to eliminate eggs from your diet after reading this information, great.  If you feel disturbed by the information, but are not ready to completely stop eating eggs, don't bother buying into the clever marketing lie known as free range eggs.  Just eat fewer eggs, and keep your mind open to the possibility of an egg-free life.

DEFRA, "Code of Recommendations for the Welfare of Livestock: Laying Hens," London: DEFRA, 2002.
DEFRA, "The Welfare of Hens in Free Range Systems," London: DEFRA, 2001.
Farm Animal Welfare Council, "Report on the Welfare of Laying Hens," London: FAWC, 1997.
The Vegan Society, "Hens and Eggs," Birmingham: The Vegan Society, accessed July 2011.
United Poultry Concerns, "Chickens," Machipongo: UPC, accessed July 2011.