In the NYTimes today, Nicholas Kristoff asks just the wrong question "Is an egg for breakfast worth this?" Of course, it isn't, but that's not the right way to frame this. Nothing about an egg for breakfast could be worth this in terms of animal cruelty, human health or any number of other considerations:
"It's physically hard to breathe because of the ammonia" rising from manure pits below older barns, said the investigator, who would not allow his name to be used because that would prevent him from taking another undercover job in agriculture. He said that when workers needed to enter an older barn, they would first open doors and rev up exhaust fans, and then rush in to do their chores before the fumes became overwhelming.
Mice sometimes ran down egg conveyer belts, barns were thick with flies and manure in three barns tested positive for salmonella, he said. (Actually, salmonella isn't as rare as you might think, turning up in 3 percent of egg factory farms tested by the Food and Drug Administration last year.)
In some cases, 11 hens were jammed into a cage about 2 feet by 2 feet. The Humane Society says that that is even more cramped than the egg industry's own voluntary standards -- which have been widely criticized as inadequate.
An automatic feeding cart that runs between the cages sometimes decapitates hens as they're eating, the investigator said. Corpses are pulled out if they're easy to see, but sometimes remain for weeks in the cages, piling up until they have rotted into the wiring, he added.
Other hens have their heads stuck in the wire and are usually left to die, the investigator said.
Anyone who doesn't know that factory egg and poultry production is a nightmare - a nightmare of cruelty to chickens, contamination of your food, a nightmare of manure and dead animal disposal issues that threaten human health is not paying attention. Eating commercial chicken or eggs is an act of willful blindness, and the investigation into Kreider farms is just par for the course.
This information has been available to everyone in the US for a decade and more, and promulgated in media, film, etc... Anyone who cares even a tiny bit about what they eat knows this. Most people who do not are actively choosing not to know.
The good news is that there's no need for such a hideous trade-off as Kristoff implies - factory chicken production is not at all the only option if you like an egg with your breakfast. Raising chickens humanely is pretty easy, actually. And, of course, the eggs are also better for,you, more delicious, the chicken's manure helps grow other delicious, healthy food, and the chickens have good, happy, healthy lives.
All you have to do is never buy eggs or poultry from anyone who raises a million or even half a million chickens a year. You can do this any number of ways. First, you could have your own two or three hens, and have an egg for breakfast any time you want, some for baking and the pleasure of living lawn ornaments roaming around your yard. All you need is a very simple house, a bit of space for them to run, and friendly zoning laws - and you can work on those. If you don't have all those things, you may be able to develop some of them - point out that legalization of backyard hens is a growing trend, or work with a community organization to support using shared space for a few hens, or split them with the neighbor.
Or you could buy eggs from your neighbor, if any raise hens. It is increasingly likely that you can find a neighbor with hens who would like to sell a few eggs to support their poultry habit. Perhaps you live somewhere with a small farm nearby or pass one of those signs that say "eggs." Next time you have a minute, turn down that driveway or stop by and look at how the hens are kept. It is extraordinarily unlikely that someone with a cardboard sign saying "eggs" has 11 chickens to a cage, or that any of them are regularly decapitated by equipment. If you can smell it before you see it, don't buy eggs from them - buy from someone else. Remember, every dollar you spend is a vote for the world you want to live in - don't waste them.
No neighbors with hens, or they are fresh out? Check out your local farmer's market, CSA or coop - and ask questions. Odds are good the farmers there raise their chickens like we do - with full free range access to the world, plenty of grass and fresh air, lots of space and all the time in the world to do what chickens like to do - scratch, peck, eat bugs, dust bathe and lay. But if they mention battery cages or confinement, run like the wind - life is too short to eat those eggs. Plus, they suck. The taste isn't as good, the yolks aren't orange, they don't stand up fresh and new. So don't bother.
What you shouldn't do is buy the plastic-packed "free range" eggs from some giant corporation at your supermarket. Those "free-ranged" chickens probably don't ever go outside, and their quarters stink as badly and their manure is a huge deal.
Nobody needs to put 1 or 4 or 10 million chickens in one place - there simply is no reason for it, when you can have 300,000 households with 3 chickens each, and 100,000 farms with 100 chickens each ranging over them.
Are inhumane and dangerous conditions only a function of industrial production? No, there will always be a need to know the truth about where your food comes from, and small farmers can be terrible farmers. But industrial production BY ITS VERY NATURE is inhumane - it can't be anything else. That is, in fact, the defense that Krieder farms makes - that such things are inevitable, and that they aren't doing anything differently than anyone else.
In order to eat animal products ethically, we must choose to know where our food comes from. We will pay a little more (I'm selling my eggs for four bucks a dozen these days). The eggs don't have to come off our plate, though - the chickens simply have to come into the light.
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I always buy cage free eggs. Free range if possible. Best was when my mother-in-law was still raising them on her farm; those birds had an extremely varied diet, being able to graze and hunt bugs and things as well as getting to eat table scraps, and it had a noticeable affect on their eggs.
But there's a problem in my mind. I've heard it said that 98% of the eggs eaten in America are laid by battery hens. With numbers like that, I find myself wondering whether it's even plausible to reduce their numbers. After all, the whole point of a battery egg production facility is quantity -- you simply can't house that many birds in one facility any other way. To convert all of the facilities to cage free (never mind free range, which is even harder) would require expanding the footprint enormously. I would be okay with that; I think things tend to be too concentrated. But I don't know how practical it is. Land would have to be acquired, for one thing.
And the cost of operating a cage free farm would have to come down; right now, they have to sell their eggs at a premium in order to cover costs. But many people refuse to buy cage free not because they are ignorant or cruel but because they can't afford paying twice as much for eggs. I can, so I do. Most people can't, so for them, it's not a choice between cage-free and battery. It's a choice between battery eggs and no eggs.
I used to think this was winnable. I'm not so sure any more.
As of today, backyard chickens are legal in Independence Oregon. We can have up to five hens, the permit fee is reasonable and the City Recorder just emailed me that she has just done permits for two people and been on the phone with several more people inquiring about permits. Our Council tasked proponents with writing a brief overview pamphlet that they will give to people getting permits and to be part of the ordinance writing process, which we happily did. It took time and lots of hard work, but it can be done. Go to the website Chickens in the Yard, Salem, Oregon (our State Capitol) and you will get all the information you need to start your own process. Good Luck!
Hats off to the investigator who dug into this story, and to all the others who keep trying to bring awareness to a public only interested in low prices. Is it realistic to hope for a time when everyone has a few chickens or access to a small farm down the road? Maybe not. But as backyard chicken-keeping continues to grow in popularity, I am definitely feeling hopeful (and enjoying my 2nd year with 4 happy hens)!
Ditto what Calli said above about the cost and the choice between battery eggs and no eggs. Around here non-battery eggs are about $4/doz. and battery eggs are $2/dozen. That's a huge cost difference. If I eat local/free range eggs only, eggs become a treat instead of a staple. (and owning chickens is not an option for apartment dwellers.)
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We seem to believe that *cheap* is a requirement in food.
If one cannot afford to eat products that cost more, perhaps they should leave those items out of their diets.
There is no *right* to eat eggs. Beans are always affordable. It's about choices.
And none of this was that relevant, I just wanted to get it off my chest. :(
I agree with Meadowlark. We have been programed to believe that food needs to be cheap. I completely understand not being able to afford good food, but think about the where you spend your money. Can you make cuts elsewhere so that you can spend $4 for eggs? or more money for good meat? People do have choices. We have made some very tough ones in the past six years. If you are eating well, your health can improve...so do you pay for medicine that can make you sicker or do you eat better food? Just somethings to think about. Thanks Sharon!
When I was growing up on the ranch, there was a problem with armadillos digging up the garden. Mother would give me 25 cents for each one I killed. We would shell them and hang them on the chicken yard fence. The chickens would skeletonize an armadillo in about an hour. So there are ways of cutting down on egg production costs without cage banks.
We just got our first 6 baby chicks last week, and so far we love them :-) I will love them even more when they start laying...in several months I suppose :-) We will pick up 4 more at the end of the month, to give us a total of 10. Very much looking forward to this experience, and loving that my children are taking such an interest in them as well.
Ahhh, but the danger of raising chickens for eggs is once you get used to eating them, you will never eat eggs out anywhere again. We went out to breakfast once and had an omelet. Didn't taste like anything, even with all the other ingredients in it. Sooooo no more breakfast out...... Which saves gas and blah, blah, blah but it was my favorite meal out.
@Callie -- "Free range" and "cage free" are more marketing terms than anything else in the US. Free range merely means a bird may get to spend a few minutes outside, but that doesn't mean roaming over a pasture. Cage free simply means more chickens in a larger cage.
Are these improvements? Sure. But it's still very high density confinement. It's nothing like your mother-in-law's chickens.
I think the issues around battery hens and sow stalls in pig farming are more prominent here in New Zealand. Sufficiently so that McDonald's in two major cities here switched to free range eggs 3 years ago. At 36,000 eggs a week they reckon they can't do any other cities because there isn't enough supply. (I'm a bit dubious about the kind of free range producers that can commit to supplying that amount of eggs year round though). Many of the local cafes and restaurants specifically use free range eggs and bacon, and prominently advertise the fact.
Nicholas Kristoff has an enormous audience, and he used that fact to help spread awareness of a terrible problem. This is a good thing.
It drives me nuts when the response to such media efforts, from people who are themselves trying to spread awareness, is to object and criticize because the phrasing, intended for an entirely different audience, didn't quite suit them.
Sure, everyone should be aware of the problem already, but the fact remains that everyone isn't. So what in the world is the point of deriding efforts to make them aware? Anything that helps people stop and think, and maybe assess the problem in a different way, is an important contribution.
Furthermore, not everyone lives in a place where every little streetside farm and corner store has eggs for sale. Or, for that matter, a fraction of land where they could keep chickens, zoning notwithstanding.You do. I do. But plenty of people are living mid-city, in apartments, where there are no local farmers markets, CSAs, co-ops, etc.
And, while I don't know about the social atmosphere there, here, I also have the advantage of living in a place where the general level of awareness about farming, global warming, etc., is very high. And feel damned lucky for it. But it's easy to make the mistake of thinking everywhere else is just the same.
This is not to argue that the answer is to embrace the corporate oxymoron of "free range" eggs, by the way. I'm wholly in agreement with your argument that what we need is a return to very high numbers of small local farms, including in mid-city.
I've got 28 hens (Austrailorp) and a rooster (Buckeye). They live in the garden in an 8x8 coop. They come out every day for most of the day and range throughout the (2/3 acre) garden, except for where I add temporary fences to keep them out of things. They dig and scratch and eat worms and bugs.
They aren't perfect layers. I used to have ducks and expected an egg a day, virtually every day. They'd miss about a day a month, and wouldn't lay from mid-November to late-March. The chickens lay more like 70% of the time, when they're in laying season.
But I'm getting more than just eggs. The feed I buy gets pooped out in the garden. The weeds (where I haven't fenced them out) get scratched up by the chickens. There's a significant area that's been fallow for a year that's changed from rhizome grass to the kind of thin rooted annual grass. It must be the kind of grass that they film rototiller ads on. It'll be easy to till when I get to it. The chickens are multi-purpose livestock. (I've yet to stew an old hen, but I will.)
And of course there's entertainment value. Chickens have been called "country people's goldfish". Some days they remind me of the seagulls from Finding Nemo: "MINE?"
Around here (Hancock County, Maine) it seems that coolers at the ends of driveways have doubled this year. Lots more people are producing eggs. As one neighbor pointed out, we're not in competition with each other. We're competing with the supermarket. The going rate is $3.00/dozen.
Well, I have 5 chickens. Illegally. LOTS of cities cling to ordinances enacted in the 30s or 40s, back when towns were eager to shed any semblance of country bumpkin-ism - which chickens surely signified in those days. So, I "bribe" the neighbors with a half-dozen eggs every now and then. . . just in case. But, for several reasons, they're not "free range" (oxymoron acknowledged)in the sense that they get to go wherever, over some idyllic farm/pasture/woodlot. I live in a residential neighborhood with a typical, relatively small, lot so my yard/garden can't sustain the effects of continuous garden demolition at which chickens are very accomplished. Also, since I live on the edge of town, bobcats, racoons, and opossums are serious threats. So, my chickens spend about 98% of their time in a fully enclosed "run" 5' wide and about 80' long to which their coop is "attached". After years of chicken "attention" it is a moonscape so they get the vegetable debris from the kitchen plus a daily dose of extraneous leafy items from the garden. Well, and the odd snail (pre-smashed), cutworm, moldy blackberry, wormy apple, and hibiscus flowers. They love hibiscus flowers.
I have to agree with kwark. Chickens need fencing. I sure have problems with possums and skunks. But my biggest problem is feral and neighbor dogs.
I grew up on farms in Iowa, and recall the nifty yard fencing -- that would contain and protect sheep or chickens or other poultry. The garden had a separate fence; the dog was kept outside the yard fence.
We didn't happen to use the yard that way, and I recall when we tore that fence down. I wish I had it today.
I did write Kristof to point out that he overlooked local egg producers and backyard flocks. And also to mention the enormous energy cost of the building materials and equipment that he posited for new facilities. The energy to replace buildings and equipment will cost a bunch more than it cost the last time. If someone can afford to produce those resources. And transport them.
My grandma raises chickens, and gives me some eggs sometimes when she comes over. They are much fresher, so if I'm not able to cook for awhile, they last a lot longer in the fridge than store bought, and a fresh egg sitting around for three weeks is often fresher than store bought cooked immediately.
Yeah...as a tenant living below the poverty line in a city, $4 a dozen eggs or giving up eggs altogether from my price limited diet. Yeah, I see that working. Don't get me wrong, I oppose cruel and otherwise bad conditions for animals, and spent a year working out the ethics of animal use and became a vegan for awhile. I also buy local eggs when I can (sometimes it's cheaper to spend an extra buck than taking the bus all the way to the supermarket and back, and I live alone and don't have a family to feed, but I still have to watch every dollar). But unless you have a lot of money/time/space, your options are a lot more limited. Considering that for poor people the cost of food is one of the most important things, saying that cheapness of food is not really an important factor unless we have the idea in our head is a luxury many people, even in a wealthy country like the USA where poor people like me have an excellent quality of life compared to many other humans, literally cannot afford.
To quote this blog's profile: "we can't all live and consume like middle class Americans".
I generally consider Sharon her posts fair and balanced, and most importantly often realistic and considering the limitations of different groups. In this case both realism and limitations of different groups seem to be somewhat lacking.
Keeping chickens in post-stamp sized gardens is already challenging, for the millions of city-dwellers that live in apartment buildings it will obvious be outright impossible. And especially for that latter group, finding local eggs will prove to be a more than moderate challenge.
Full free range, however nice it sounds, also is irrealistic in large parts of the world. Both urban and wild life predators would probably be grateful; the chickens ultimately much less so.
Interesting - the comments to me seem like one of those "perfect being the enemy of the good" things. It is certainly true that doubling the price of eggs will cut the number of eggs most Americans consume - which isn't necessarily a bad thing, given that most of us consume four to ten times more protein than we actually need. All animal products are going to have to come down in quantity to actually be even remotely sustainable.
It is true not every community has a farmer's market, and not everyone is middle class - but most middle class people aren't buying good eggs, and most people with plenty of opportunities to know how appalling battery poultry raising is aren't bothering to know - popular television has been running segments on this for years and years and years, and we're still buying the other kinds of eggs.
As for issues of poverty, there are any number of ways to address them and make it possible for at least many low income people to buy good eggs. For example, changing the ridiculous WIC laws (which I've written about before) to permit WIC to cover sustainably produced food from farmer's markets including eggs and milk (rather than the lowest priced industrial model), and the long-standing proposal to make food stamps pay double at farmer's markets (which instantly covers the difference).
But the main point of this particular article (I spend a lot more time writing about poverty than chickens, so I'm not too worried about the accusation that I'm not getting that ;-)), is that middle class people are still buying "cage free" industrial eggs and straight supermarket eggs. Most Americans can well afford to buy $4 eggs, and also can well afford to consume fewer eggs. Shifting the subject to poverty ignores the many low income people (including my own family which at times in the last decade fell below the requirements for food stamps, although we've never needed them) who make sacrifices to eat well and also shifts the ground from the fact that most middle class people have the capacity to both know and act, and don't.
Like NM, I'm glad that Kristoff wrote about that - but I won't apologize for pointing out that his framing needs work.
yep, I made a comment on that article, starting "Don't blame the eggs!"
Incidentally; my biggest problem with my 18 "True Free-Range Orchard Guardian" hens is- the crows watch them closely, and steal the eggs before I can gather them. The crows actually enter the nest boxes. They've stolen 3 of my ceramic nest eggs so far, too. Really annoying! Now carrying the shotgun; but the crows absolutely know what the gun is, and stay much further away.
Also; Sharon, there's an even WORSE OpEd in the NYT today; on the Myth of Sustainable Meat. The guy writing it is a vegetarian history professor- which is NOT explained; and he twists his facts quite badly. Embarrassingly poor journalism, in my opinion. I've bugged Bittman to respond, but don't know if he will.
Frank: "Full free range, however nice it sounds, also is irrealistic in large parts of the world. Both urban and wild life predators would probably be grateful; the chickens ultimately much less so."
If you're doing genuine free range; as I do; you really have to do your homework first; but it is far from "irrealistic" (cute neologism there) :-).
When I decided to get chickens; a year before that- I got the dogs. Then I got guineas. Then I got the chickens. Yes; predators are a fact of life.
So is death; no matter what method of livestock keeping you adopt. Your animals will all die; someday. My birds have been out full free range for only 3 weeks so far this year; and I've lost only 1 hen to a predator so far- which makes me quite happy. The dogs keep coyotes, coons, etc., far away; the guineas warn of hawks (and eagles, here) quickly and emphatically- but- the idea that you could protect all the hens perfectly is fantasy. You will lose birds.
The reality is; in the battery cages you lose birds to disease and bad management- free range you lose to predators, sometimes to disease also. As my favorite philosopher, Mel Brooks, put it: "Live while you're alive. No one will survive." Chickens too; no matter how you care for them.
I would be thrilled with $4/dozen sustainable eggs. Where I live, they are $7/dozen at the farmer's market. There are some local-ish free-range eggs at the food co-op for $4.50/dozen. They are better than, say, the Whole Foods or Trader Joe's free-range. But you can taste how much better the totally free-range, primarily grass-fed eggs at the farmer's market are. Pity they are so expensive. We buy them when we can, and otherwise buy the ones at the food co-op.
Actually; sitting here waiting for the tornadoes tonight, I re-checked my poultry records and discovered that I have NOT lost that 1 hen. I mistakenly thought there should have been 6 Americaunas in that tractor, and could only count 5 (you count, every night) - records, though, clearly showed I'd only put 5 there in the first place. The one Dominique had me confused. Thank goodness for those tornadoes, huh? So; in fact; have lost 0 birds so far this year.
Going to be a long night; the bad storms are still 150 miles off; still pointing right at us; and moving slow.
I can, and do. (And BTW to the person who tried to undercut my purchasing by saying it's still inadequate, the words aren't just marketing. There are actual definitions that have to be met. More to the point, though, I know the specific farms that produce these specific eggs. I have that luxury.)
But my point is that most people don't have that kind of discretionary income. If you're on food stamps or WIC, spending twice as much on eggs means buying less food overall. If you're rationing your prescriptions in order to make rent, you're not going to be able to buy expensive eggs. Eating less eggs is an option, certainly; remember that that means eggs are a luxury.
But that's not what I was thinking about. Over the Easter weekend, Modern Marvels ran a program about egg production, covering some of the major methods including battery egg production. That was where I picked up the statistic about 98% of the eggs produced coming from battery farms. If everyone, even those on assistance, started insisting on free range or cage free eggs, that number would change - but not by enough to drive battery farms out of existence. Why? Because while nearly 100% of the fancier eggs sold are sold directly to consumers, still in their shells, the battery eggs are mostly going to factories, not grocery stores. The majority of eggs produced in America are not sold directly to the consumer, still in their shells. Most of them go to bakeries, other food manufacturers, and industrial applications. So even if every grocery store in America stocked zero eggs from battery hens, the majority of eggs sold in America would still be from battery hens.
You would need to not only pay more for your eggs but also for your bread, and anything else made with egg. And bread shouldn't be a luxury. "We have been programed to believe that food needs to be cheap." Yes, we have. That programming comes from Nature, and is absolutely vital to our survival. That doesn't abrogate any responsibility to improve the welfare of our domestic animals, improve sustainability, etc. But if we don't think food should be available cheaply, then we are consigning part of our population to starvation. Cheap food is less healthy, less wholesome, less tasty . . . that's always been true. But it should *exist* or the poor will starve. The whole history of human civilization has been one of decreasing the cost of food. Once upon a time, filling your family's bellies required constant hunting and gathering, and there were days when you went hungry and ate wood pulp or clay to stave off the pangs until you could finally bring down a rabbit or find a fruit tree that hasn't been raided by the local monkeys yet. Then someone worked out that you could relocate seedlings, or sow seeds, and know where to come back for later gathering; the cost of food went down, because they could get more food for the same effort. Then they domesticated wheat, and the cost when down more. Flour was invented. Granaries were invented, so one week's harvest could be kept for months. Selective breeding improved yield. Animals were domesticated. Tilling made it easier to get rid of weeds and improve success of your seeds. Fertilizer came along. Cities were invented, allowing workers to share the efforts of planting, tending, and harvesting, and the cost of food went down enough that people no longer had to devote their lives to producing it.
Yes, we've been programmed to believe food should be cheap. It's the only reason we've striven to make it so. This has had consequences; nothing is without consequences. But cheapness is not, a priori, a bad thing. There's much more to it than that. And if we want to get rid of battery hens, we're going to have to figure out a way to duplicate their production for not much more cost, or it's a doomed effort.