The conventional chicken egg is, when you really think about it, extraordinarily cheap considering what is being offered. Your average sized egg contains 71 calories made up of 6 grams of protein, 5% of daily iron intake, 5% of daily vitamin A intake, and just two grams of saturated fat. The average cost of a single egg to consumers (if purchased by the dozen) is about 15 cents, making it an astoundingly affordable and attainable foodstuff. However all of this comes at an extraordinary cost – the welfare of the hens that are basically egg slaves subjected to conditions that are the definition of inhumane. For years, if not decades, animal rights groups like the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) have been lobbying hard to affect some sort of change in the egg industry to no avail. While some states like California, and Ohio have set their own standards to make their local egg industries more humane and less objectionable, the notion of a national standard has been seemingly a pipe dream – until now.
What reads like a highly unlikely partnership, the HSUS and the United Egg Producers (UEP), which represents farmers who own about 80 percent of the nation’s laying hens, have come to a consensus about the creation of a federal law that would require larger cages and other improved conditions for the nation’s 280 million laying hens. If passed by the Fed, this will be the first federal legislation on animal cruelty in over 30 years. The two groups agreed to collectively ask congress to pass a law enacting the new standards, which will ban the use of “battery cages” in the raising of egg-laying hens and would be the first federal law addressing the treatment of farm animals and would effectively pre-empt efforts in several states to set their own standards. These new regulations would be, for the most part, gradually implemented over the next decade, and would require cages that give hens up to 144 square inches of space each, instead of the horribly cramped 67 square inches that most hens are forced to squeeze into under today’s conventional practices. Legislation, if passed, would also include so-called habitat enrichments, like perches, scratching areas and nesting areas that allow the birds to express natural behavior. In essence, this legislation would provide a bit more dignity to an industry notorious for its cruelty and lack of humanity.
With any sort of major compromise like this, requiring two opposing groups to meet in the middle, there will be shortcomings and growing pains. The UEP will have to foot the bill for huge improvements (requiring 4 billion dollars of upgrades over the next 18 years, which will no doubt hike the price of eggs) and will likely catch hell from other poultry and livestock producers, who live in fear of similar legislations pricing them out of the industry. And the HSUS will have to scale back on banning cages entirely in exchange for the chance to work toward a single, nationwide standard mandating better conditions for America’s egg layers. While there are bound to be people unhappy with the proposed legislation and critical of the fact that it goes to far, or doesn’t go far enough, it represents the messy trajectory of progress and opens more possibilities of oppositional groups working together for the common good.
While legislation is still on that table and far from approval, do you feel the potential of this compromise to be a largely positive development for consumers and hens alike, or do you feel more could have been done to insure a more humane and agreeable product? Do proposed laws like this help you rest easier at night, or are the offenses so egregious that no amount of legislation will ever rectify the damage done?