Opening The Cages

The Humane Movement to Liberate Poultry

Over easy or whisked into omelets, eggs are a breakfast staple. But the hens that lay the eggs get little appreciation for their efforts. Visit 95 percent of the egg operations in the U.S. today, and you"ll find as many as a quarter million hens crammed into batteries of cages stacked 10 rows high—spaces so tight they can’t even flap their wings.

Consumer demand is freeing hens from battery cages.© Getty Images

"The modern hen lays an egg on around 320 days each year, and during the two hours surrounding that process, she is severely frustrated," says Ian Duncan, an expert on laying hens and emeritus professor in the department of animal and poultry science at the University of Guelph, Canada. "That seems unacceptable to me."

Duncan notes that without perches, the chickens do not sleep well at night, and because they cannot get exercise, they develop weak bones akin to osteoporosis. That said, a growing minority—five percent of producers—are changing chickens" lives for the better. "The trend seems to be getting the birds onto the floor of the barns and even outside," Duncan says.

"This new ethic is conservative, not radical," says Bernard Rollin of Colorado State University. "It is a return to the roughly fair contract those who have husbanded animals for virtually all of human history have had—that of taking great pains to put them into the best possible environment one could find to meet their physical and psychological natures."

The Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS) began a formal campaign to raise awareness about conditions related to confined farm animals in 2005. By the end of 2006, HSUS had drawn sufficient public attention to the wretched plight of laying hens. Its campaign helped change the egg-purchasing policies of several large companies, including Ben and Jerry"s.

"We will be phasing in the "good" eggs over the next four years," says Sean Greenwood, spokesman for the ice cream company that markets itself as socially conscious. "We’re not chicken experts and learned about all this from the Humane Society. But we are a company that believes in being fair to animals."

According to Paul Shapiro, director of HSUS’s Factory Farm Campaign, "We looked at major buyers and worked with them to stop buying the most abusive types of eggs that are available. Ben and Jerry’s is a huge company, and it deserves credit for improving the welfare for hens who are laying eggs for its ice cream."

But Shapiro cautions against assuming that all is well. "Consumers need to realize that cage-free eggs don’t necessarily mean cruelty-free," he says, "[although] there is significantly less suffering involved."

Hens living in cage-free operations, says John Brunnquell, president of Egg Innovations, "are free to move around the barn, interact with peers, and enjoy natural sunlight"—but they do not get to go outside. Consumers have not indicated they will support full lives for the hens, he adds.

Brunnquell says that the cage-free egg has become relatively affordable. "On the other hand," he adds, "eggs that are labeled organic must come from hens that are free roaming with access to the outside. Organic shoppers have said they are willing to pay the price for the more expensive outside access, but the cage-free shopper hasn"t. So we don’t want to lose those people by pricing product out of their range."

Brunnquell grew up on a small family egg farm in Wisconsin that used cages. But after earning a master’s degree in poultry science, he decided to move his operation to 100 percent cage-free, complete with third party audits to ensure full compliance.

The third-party audits Brunnquell uses from Humane Farm Animal Care are in lieu of formal federal or state regulation protecting animals in confined farming operations. According to Rollin, that’s because the agricultural industry has pressured for a laissez-faire approach to regulation.

"These big companies are kingdoms unto themselves and aren’t used to the oversight that animal research enjoys in university settings," Rollin says. "They’re accountable only to their stockholders, and many owners say they will move to Asia if U.S. regulators clamp down."

Shapiro says U.S. consumers are coming around. "Since we started our campaign in 2005, we’ve praised a number of companies that now have switched over to cage-free eggs: Ben and Jerry"s, AOL, Google, the Bon Appetit Management Company that services more than 70 universities, and, of course, natural food purveyors Wild Oats Natural Marketplace and Whole Foods Market."

—Jean Johnson