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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The War on Hen-Pecking

All states should follow California’s example and make egg producers treat laying hens better.

Chickens had plenty to celebrate on New Year’s Day. Supposedly.

After a long wait, California’s 2008 ballot measure to improve conditions for laying hens finally went into effect. 

Instead of living in cramped cages that give each bird less room than a sheet of paper, the birds are going to get enough space to lie down, stand up, stretch their wings, or turn around.

That’s still not very much space. And it’s certainly not “Chicken Disneyland,” as egg producer Frank Hilliker told the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Chicken Disneyland would be an outdoor area with ample space to scratch for tasty bugs, eat grass, and take dust baths. Birds who live there would find their own shelter, nest boxes, and some good high-up places to roost.

This may sound funnier than it is. When chickens are crowded in too close together under stressful conditions, they peck each other — sometimes to death.

So while the new standards are a step up from what laying hens had in the past — and will also impact suppliers in other states that ship eggs to California — it’s a very low bar.

The average laying hen leads a short, rather unpleasant life. Hens lay the most eggs during their first year or two of life. After that, their production goes down and the egg industry has little use for them.

“Spent hens” — as they are called after they put in their year or so of egg-laying — might end up in canned chicken sold for human consumption. Mostly, their meat winds up in animal feed and pet food.

A recent undercover investigation by the Humane Society found horrific abuses in the slaughter of spent hens at a Minnesota plant.

Very little of the media coverage of California’s new standards for egg producers emphasizes the plight of laying hens or how the improved standards still fall short. Instead, it’s focusing on the potential increase in egg prices consumers will pay.

While egg prices are up, it isn’t because egg producers chose to set a high price to cover their costs. Supply and demand are key. It’s just good luck for producers that they’re upgrading their facilities to comply with the law at a time when egg prices are favorable.

However, egg prices could rise more due to the new regulations.

But how much does the average family spend on eggs anyway? The average price of a dozen eggs has hovered between $1.08 and a little more than $2.00 for the last ten years. Prices rose 10 cents to $2.03 between November 2013 and November 2014 — the most recent months available for comparison.

With prices so low, it would be difficult for costlier eggs to really harm consumer budgets. How many dozen eggs do you buy per week? One? Two? Unless you own a brunch restaurant, egg prices don’t really make a dent on your wallet.

Compare that to the impact on the chickens who produce them. Isn’t moving chickens from a caged space smaller than a piece of paper to either larger cages or cage-free environments worth the investment?

I choose to raise my own chickens when I am able and to buy organic eggs directly from small farmers when I am not, but I am the exception. (Or should I say egg-ception?) I don’t expect most Americans to care as much as I do about the treatment of chickens, yet I don’t think Americans favor cruelty either.

Even if the new humane standards drive up egg prices, it’s worth adopting them in California and the rest of the country. Because we’re not the kind of people who are so eager to save a few pennies on eggs that we must subject the hens that lay them to the maximum amount of misery.

OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix