Just like every other year, parents are shelving traditions of dyeing and hiding Easter eggs. And just like every other year, post-Easter egg demand is inevitably declining, leaving producers with a surplus. To ease the financial burden of this annual drop in egg consumption, the American Egg Board declares May “National Egg Month” and attempts to woo food editors and morning talk shows into promoting eggs.
But one thing the egg industry likely won’t trot out in its PR effort is its sordid animal welfare record.
Arguably the most abused animals in all of U.S. agribusiness, nearly 280 million egg-laying hens live in barren, wire battery cages so restrictive they can’t even spread their wings. Each bird has less space than a sheet of letter-sized paper on which to live for eighteen months before she’s slaughtered. The birds can’t nest, dust bathe, perch, or walk—they endure lives wrought with suffering.
Dr. Bernard Rollin of the Department of Animal Science at Colorado State University states that “virtually all aspects of hen behavior are thwarted by battery cages….The most obvious problem is lack of exercise and natural movement….Research has confirmed what common sense already knew—animals built to move must move.”
But common sense doesn’t always prevail in the world of animal agribusiness, and it’s generally the animals who pay the price. Not only are these birds often abused in ways that would result in criminal prosecution if they were dogs or cats rather than hens, they have almost no legal protection from cruelty. No federal laws regulate the treatment of hens on egg factory farms. And most states’ cruelty codes exempt common agricultural practices, no matter how abusive.
There’s some movement in the right direction, however. In November, Californians made their state—number one in the country for agriculture—the first in the nation to ban battery cages. Demand for animal welfare improvements is now causing some egg producers to literally rip out their cages and convert to cage-free systems. In fact, one national egg producer, Radlo Foods, recently announced it’s getting rid of all its battery cages and becoming completely cage-free.
The trend is increasingly clear: The confinement of hens in battery cages is simply out of step with the moral sentiments of the American public, and the demand for change will only continue to grow. Food retailers—such as McDonald’s—would be wise to take notice and start improving animal welfare in their supply chains.
In honor of “National Egg Month,” egg producers should accelerate this trend and retire their battery cages to make way for cage-free hens. These birds’ lives will be much better than those who would have suffered from permanent immobilization in their barren cages.
It’s hard to imagine a better way for the egg industry to celebrate this month it’s dedicated to itself.