Jill Howard Church,
Institute for Animals and Society
The egg industry is clearly not above playing "loosey goosey" with rhetoric that makes it sound like they're concerned with more than just profit. But the cracks in their arguments are easy to see.
The United Egg Producers (UEP) trade organization is playing its own version of Chicken Little. They're not concerned about the sky falling, but of prices rising, specifically egg prices. UEP announced in a press release this week that "consumers would be forced to pay 25 percent more for eggs soon if animal rights activists succeed in getting only non-cage eggs sold in the U.S." The group quotes a study by an economic consulting firm that claims the price of eggs produced by chickens kept in cage-free facilities would raise domestic egg prices so high that consumers would turn to lower-priced eggs imported from other countries. It seems to be a premature concern, given that 95 percent of the eggs sold in the U.S. are still produced on factory farms that confine hens to small battery cages.
The UEP quotes price forecasts by the USDA, which nevertheless notes that current egg prices are 13 percent lower this year than last summer.
The average price for a dozen factory-farm eggs where I live is about $1.29 these days, while a dozen cage-free eggs cost around $2.49. The difference for the average consumer isn't a big deal in a country where people somehow find the means to pay several dollars for a pack of cigarettes, a cup of coffee or a single cocktail. A fast-food lunch costs twice what a dozen cage-free eggs would. It's more a matter of priorities than pricing. Americans are so used to cheap, subsidized food that they have long since lost sight of the true value of products and what it means to support farmers who cultivate ethically.
You don't have to be psychic to see that the U.S. egg industry probably doesn't give a Henny Penny about the cost of eggs per se, but it does care if its market share falls to non-U.S. companies. It also cares about the investment it would have to make to switch from battery cages to larger systems that give chickens more room and a slightly better life. It wants to keep the status quo and scare consumers into thinking their grocery bills will jump sky-high if humane reforms are applied to the egg industry.
Unfortunately, the UEP is forgetting about the basics of supply and demand. As the passage of Proposition 2 in California showed, more people are slowly becoming aware of the cruelty of factory farming and its effect on human health and the environment. They're reading books and seeing films that explain what animal rights and environmental activists have been saying for years, only this time they're paying more attention. And just as they show greater interest in spending more for organic produce and hybrid vehicles, they are choosing animal products differently and are willing to pay more for products that reflect their values. There will, we hope, be more agricultural reforms either state by state or federally until we improve the abysmal animal "care" standards, such as battery cages, gestation stalls and veal crates, that never should have been allowed to become standard practice in the first place.
According to World Poultry magazine, an international trade publication, consumer demand for eggs from uncaged hens is growing, despite the higher cost. It reports that in Australia, "the market share of free-range and barn-laid eggs is up to 31% from 17% in 2000."
Based on changes in consumer attitudes in the U.S., Whole Foods Market no longer sells battery eggs, and Trader Joe's brand eggs are now from cage-free farms. Measures against the use of battery eggs have been enacted by individual towns and some college campuses. Several activist groups have campaigns to pressure major food chains such as International House of Pancakes and Dunkin Donuts to stop using battery eggs.
Oddly, the UEP itself has responded to critics of factory farming by supposedly implementing new guidelines that address such issues as cage size (but not eliminating them), beak trimming and forced molting. The UEP seems to be making minor changes to make it look like they're doing something, which at least acknowledges that conditions were so bad that something needed to be done. Still, it uses euphemisms such as "controlled environments" to describe factory farms, and even goes so far as to claim that concerns over importing eggs relate to the product's carbon footprint, even though the manure runoff and other waste from poultry farms is well known as a major polluter of waterways. The egg industry is clearly not above playing "loosey goosey" with rhetoric that makes it sound like they're concerned with more than just profit. But the cracks in their arguments are easy to see.
The entire issue of egg production is of course part of a much larger discussion of whether to eat animal products at all. The designation of "free-range" is often much less desirable than marketers make it out to be, and egg-laying hens in almost any commercial environment are likely the most abused of all farmed animals because of lax laws, the sheer number of them used and killed, and the general devaluation of birds' well-being as compared to mammals. A vegan diet if of course the most humane. But just because reform isn't the ultimate goal doesn't mean it isn't a worthy interim step.
I'm a pragmatist who realizes that the American population is going to consume large amounts of eggs for many years to come, even if a percentage lowers or eliminates its consumption by degrees over decades. That shouldn't undermine efforts to encourage people to go vegan; there are many arguments to support that as the better choice.
But if reforming farming practices gets U.S. hens out of cages (as Europe is poised to do soon), and if we refuse to allow imports of battery-cage eggs so better domestic standards aren't undermined, the sky will not fall, American families won't go bankrupt, and billions of birds will have at least some relief.
Jill Howard-Church is a writer and editor who specializes in animal issues. She serves as the part-time communications director for the Animals and Society Institute, and is the volunteer president of the Vegetarian Society of Georgia.