While many people are becoming more aware of the myriad reasons to abstain from meat, the egg question is much less explored by the mainstream. Unfortunately, egg-laying hens likely suffer the most and on the largest scale of any animals in the modern food industry. Given this fact, the news that The Humane Society of the United States and United Egg Producers are introducing a major agreement this month for legislation seeking to set national standards for animal welfare in egg-production is no small matter.
For an education in the horrendous living conditions of the vast majority of egg laying hens, I recommend the amazing work conducted by the group Mercy for Animals and the undercover investigations they have conducted beginning in 2002. Below is footage from an underground investigation of New England’s largest farm:
More than 250 million egg laying hens live in these conditions in the United States, a nearly unimaginable number. Helping to visualize this number is the website AnimalVisuals. While it’s rather difficult to fathom a number in the millions, this “Rate of Slaughter” resource offers a creative visualization of the number of animals slaughtered in real time. Although I’ve been vegan for years, I sincerely got sick to my stomach when using the “Virtual Battery Cage” animation, which is a brilliant 3-D animation from the perspective of a battery-caged hen.
A Look at the Proposed Legislation
The new agreement between the Humane Society and United Egg Producers, a trade group representing most farming operations with battery-caged hens, offers a notable move by the egg industry to introduce some level of federal legislation of welfare standards. Lifted straight from the United Egg Producers’ press release, the proposed legislation would:
- require conventional cages (currently used by more than 90 percent of the egg industry) to be replaced, through an ample phase-in period, with new, enriched housing systems that provide each hen nearly double the amount of space they’re currently allotted. Egg producers will invest an additional $4 billion over the next decade and a half to effect this industry-wide make-over;
- require that all egg-laying hens be provided, through the new enriched housing system, with environments that will allow hens to express natural behaviors, such as perches, nesting boxes, and scratching areas; mandate labeling on all egg cartons nationwide to inform consumers of the method used to produce the eggs, such as “eggs from caged hens,” “eggs from hens in enriched cages,” “eggs from cage-free hens,” and “eggs from free-range hens”;
- prohibit feed- or water-withholding molting to extend the laying cycle, a practice already prohibited by the United Egg Producers Certified program adhered to by a majority of egg farmers; require standards approved by the American Veterinary Medical Association for euthanasia for egg laying hens;
- prohibit excessive ammonia levels in henhouses; prohibit the sale of eggs and egg products nationwide that don’t meet these requirements.
…those who criticize HSUS for making such an agreement should recognize that this sort of thing is exactly what HSUS has been doing forever. It is the “Humane” Society. And “humane” is a meaningless concept in a context in which animals are chattel property. HSUS exists to make people who exploit animals feel better about exploitation. And those who claim that this is a “landmark” agreement for animals and will lead to significant welfare benefits in the near term and reduced use or abolition in the future, should recognize that promoting the notion of “compassionate” exploitation will never-can never-lead to the rejection of animal use. It will only reinforce and perpetuate that use.
I wonder what those who aren’t vegan, and weren’t aware of the state of battery-caged hens think of this debate and pending legislation?
Measuring progress for a movement is not always easy. Different standards for progress and hopes for the future muddle how different groups work to move forward. This is true for feminists. This is true for gay rights activists. This is true for animal protection activists.
As an ethical vegan, legislation like this is not an easy thing to grapple with. As an activist, I certainly commend all the work done by those at the Humane Society and at Mercy for Animals and like minded animal-protection organizations to make even this potential federal regulation a possibility.