Egg producers in the US face lawsuits accusing them of using improvements in animal welfare as a scheme to artificially inflate prices.
United Egg Producers is a trade group whose members account for 95% of laying hens in the United States. All the biggest names in egg production are members of the group including Hillendale Farms and Wright County Egg, the two farms associated with last summer’s major egg recall.
UEP and individual member companies are being sued by groups of supermarkets and restaurants, including a coalition of food wholesalers and retailers in Kansas and food services giant Sodexo.
The complaints stem from UEP’s attempts to implement animal welfare improvements called for by consumers and retailers. Much has been made of the need to improve conditions for laying hens who are crammed into tiny cages with no space to move. Consumer groups, animal welfare groups, and retailers have called on egg producers to make living conditions for their hens more comfortable by increasing cage sizes.
United Egg Producers says that implementing the changes to improve welfare meant temporarily reducing their flock, which in turn temporarily increased prices. In 2007 UEP produced 6.435 billion dozen eggs at an average price of $1.14 a dozen, while in 2008 UEP produced 6.403 billion dozen eggs at an average price of $1.28 a dozen.
At a glance the changes seem rather undramatic and predictably temporary, and the forecast for egg production in 2011 seems favorable. It predicts that production will have increased to 6.550 billion dozen and the average price will be down to $1.01 a dozen.
So why all the fuss? People wanted bigger cages, and the industry gave them what they wanted. The changes themselves seem to have increased productivity and lowered prices in the long term and the animal welfare program has been approved by the USDA, the FDA, and trade groups representing supermarkets and restaurants.
With so many groups seemingly working for contradictory goals, however, it’s inevitable that this legal battle will be drawn out and complicated.
In all the convoluted litigation you can see clearly the themes that pervade all facets of the animal welfare debate:
1. UEP members implemented welfare reforms that ultimately made their operations more profitable, increased production and lowered prices. No company in a similar situation will ever improve welfare more than what is profitable for them. Welfare reform isn’t about helping animals but rather helping those who exploit animals.
2. Regardless of public posturing by retailers or consumer groups about wanting to improve animal conditions, those groups’ first concern will always be money and they will resist any reform — even one they worked for — if it involves even temporary price increases.
3. The reform that is at the heart of all this fighting is an increase from 57 square inches per bird to 67 square inches per bird. If this increase sounds laughable to you, it’s because it is. These reforms can seem monumental because of all the bickering and fighting over them but in reality these changes make almost no difference in the life of a hen confined for her whole life in a cage producing eggs for humans to eat.
As complicated as this situation may seem it drives home the point that animal exploitation is animal exploitation no matter if the cage is 50, 60 or 70 inches. The only change that animal welfare reform ever makes is a bigger profit margin for those that kill animals for money.
If you want to change the lives of animals who are dying for human consumption, go vegan. Working for animals should be about emptying cages, not enlarging them.
Photo: Jo Naylor