The Humane Society of the United States recently announced what they claim is a huge victory for caged hens in the state of Washington.
Single-issue campaigns, such as cage-free initiatives, have long been a focus of many animal rights organizations like HSUS. There is no doubt living on litter (assuming it is dry and properly cycled) vs. a wire floor for 18 months is less cruel. However, some “free-range” environments still use metal or wire flooring to allow urine and faeces to pass through into the manure pits below (see image below). Nonetheless, caged environments generally tend to provide hens the living space of about 8.5” x 11”. Cage-free environments could potentially give a hen about the equivalent of 12” x 12”.
However, what is the data showing us as to the effectiveness of these campaigns and are they really a victory for hens forced to endure endless egg laying?
Flock sizes and egg consumption in the U.K., Canada and the United States in 2017 and 2018 are at their highest levels in history and will continue to grow due to demand. As the general public are largely ignorant of standard practices in the egg industry, cage-free initiatives wrongly focus public attention on only one of the many cruel aspects of egg production - the laying phase. Given the general public already does not see the same moral imperative on the issue of egg laying hens with, say, animals used for meat, cage-free initiatives reinforce this false notion and helps to remove any ethical concerns the public may have once had about eggs. And if you doubt this, just read some of the comments on HSUS’s Facebook page as it relates to this “victory” (see below).
And the reality is, for cage-free farms to remain economically competitive in the early days of transition, they will have to increase their stocking densities and/or increase the number of hens per barn. And these hens will still be subject to many of the same illnesses and disease that afflict caged hens. And possibly a few more they wouldn’t have had in a caged environment.
The argument that "cage-free" will increase the price of eggs and thus drive down consumption is not necessarily supported by the data. Once large food retailers and restaurants like McDonald's finally convert their massive, global supply chains to cage-free, the price gap between cage-free and caged eggs will ultimately narrow at the hand of market pressures until there is virtually little to no difference once adjusted for inflation.
Reducetarianism and flexitarianism are also contributing to the increase in egg consumption as consumers seek out protein alternatives for meat. While plant-based proteins are part of those alternative choices, so too are eggs. Single-issue campaigns have not been effective thus far for hens forced to lay eggs. Had they been then we would see egg consumption trending lower, not at an all-time high with projected demand going down, not up. And given that egg production, qualitatively and quantitatively, is the most cruel form of animal agriculture on the planet, this is not good news in terms of reducing overall animal suffering. If egg consumption is at historic highs and will continue to go up, so too will maceration, debeaking, vaccinations, transport and slaughter.
We believe the animal rights movement has reached a tipping point. And with the myriad of plant-based alternatives and compassionate choices available, the time has come for a much bigger focus on the care tradition and advocating for leaving all animal foods, including eggs, off our plates. Unfortunately, large animal rights organizations like HSUS and others have not evolved their strategies.
Cage-free legislation is not a victory for animals. It is an anthropocentric justification to make us feel better that we are achieving a measure of success when all the metrics point in the other direction.
Note: this post was updated on May 22 to include a photo of free-range hens on a perforated steel flooring.
Nigel Osborne is the Executive Dir. of Egg-Truth. Nigel has years of experience related to animal rights and on-line advocacy. Nigel's extensive background in the publishing, outdoor advertising, printing and web design industries over the last 25 years provides him with a strong, creative acumen and business management experience. Through Egg-Truth.com and it's social media channels, Nigel seeks to increase awareness among the public about global egg production and expose the conditions for the billions of hens condemned to laying every year.