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What’s Wrong With Cage-Free Eggs?

“Cage-free” does not mean “cruelty-free.”

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Hens in Battery Cages

Hens in battery cages.

Photo courtesy of Farm Sanctuary

Horrible images of hens crowded in battery cages sometimes inspire people to reach for the “cage-free” carton of eggs at the supermarket. What could possibly be wrong with cage-free eggs?

The Animal Rights Perspective

From an animal rights perspective, it doesn’t matter whether the hens are kept in battery cages, in barns or on acres of lush green pastures. Keeping and breeding chickens so that we can take their eggs is a violation of the animals’ right to be free of human use and exploitation. These are domestic chickens who, most likely, cannot survive on their own in the wild. The solution is not to release them into the woods, but to prevent the egg producers from breeding them in the first place. If the demand for eggs drops, the producers will breed fewer chickens.

What are battery cages?

Hens in battery cages live their entire lives never being able to spread their wings. Battery cages are wire cages for egg-laying hens, usually about 18 by 20 inches, each with up to 11 birds inside. A single bird has a wingspan of 32 inches. Cages are stacked in rows on top of each other, so that hundreds of thousands of birds can be housed in a single building. The wire floors are sloped so that the eggs roll out of the cages. Because feeding and watering is sometimes automated, human oversight and contact are minimal. Birds fall out of cages, get stuck between cages, or get their heads or limbs stuck between the bars of their cages, and die because they cannot access food and water.

Doesn’t the law protect the hens?

There are no federal laws in the United States that regulate the way farmed animals are raised. There is a law that governs humane slaughter, and a law that governs transport of the animals, but neither of these prohibit the use of battery cages.

Individual states have their own animal cruelty statutes and agricultural regulations, but these tend to exempt “routine” or “common” practices. However, at least one state’s judiciary has ruled that such an exemption is invalid. In 2008, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that an exception for “routine husbandry practices” was invalid because it was arbitrary and capricious.

While convicting factory farm workers of animal cruelty is not unheard of, the cases are rare and occur only when the workers have engaged in some egregious act of animal cruelty, such as gratuitously beating or killing the animals.

Some state statutes and regulations specifically target battery cages, such as California’s Prop 2, which states that farmed animals must be given enough room to “turn around freely, lie down, stand up, and fully extend their limbs.”

What does cage-free mean?

There is no legal definition of “cage-free,” and a cage-free hen is not necessarily a free hen running about a pasture. Often, cage-free hens are running around crowded barns, with little or no access to the outdoors.

Aren’t the cage-free chickens treated humanely?

”Cage-free” does not mean the hens are treated humanely. They may still have their beaks cut off in a practice called “debeaking,” because it cuts down on the amount of injuries when they fight each other. They may still be given antibiotics. When they are too old to lay eggs at a profitable rate, they are slaughtered for cheap meat. In hatcheries, female chicks are sold to become laying hens, but male chicks are killed because they are useless for laying eggs, and they are the wrong breed to be profitable meat chickens.

Furthermore, according to Harold Brown, founder of Farm Kind, cage-free chickens have more stress-related hormones in their eggs than eggs from battery hens, because the flock is too big for the chickens to establish a pecking order.

Aside from animal rights principles against raising chickens for eggs or meat, there are still valid animal welfare concerns about the way that cage-free egg-laying hens are treated. While “cage-free” may sound like a good idea, there is still quite a bit of cruelty and killing involved. The solution to battery cages is not cage-free eggs, but veganism.

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