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Student Initiative Bringing "Cage Free" Eggs to Campuses and Businesses Nationwide

By HEATHER GREENFIELD Associated Press Writer
http://www.wtopnews.com/index.php?nid=25&sid=683440
Jan. 31, 2006

WASHINGTON - American University students wanted to change the food served
on campus, but their movement wound up changing the menus at hundreds of
cafeterias nationwide and the lives of thousands of chickens.

Just after Easter last year, American University senior David Benzaquen
stood up in a meeting about the school's food service and asked the
cafeteria to switch to cage-free eggs.

"I think many, many chickens will have huge suffering spared," Benzaquen
said.

Laying hens are the most abused animals in agribusiness, according to Paul
Shapiro of the Humane Society of the United States.

"When many people think of egg production, they think of Old MacDonald's
farm and chickens walking around," Shapiro said.

Benzaquen, who visited an egg farm, said more often eight chickens are
confined to a cage, each with standing room about half the size of a sheet
of computer paper.

"The most shocking thing about the place is the smell," Benzaquen said. He
remembers four to five cages stacked on top of each other with the chickens
in the bottom cage living amid the excrement of those living above.

Shapiro said the chickens live their whole lives in these conditions and are
given antibiotics to stave off illness. Often their beaks are clipped off so
that they don't injure other chickens sharing the cage.

"There are many people not opposed to killing and eating animals, but they
are opposed to treating them cruelly and abusively while they are alive,"
Shapiro said.

A spokesman for the United Eggs Producers, Mitch Head, said the industry has
been phasing in voluntary measures over the past four years to improve the
lives of laying hens. Under the standards, birds now have 67 square inches
of living space instead of 48 inches, beaks are not clipped as short as they
were, and manure is removed so that it doesn't drop through cages.

"The industry said we can do better and we have," Head said. "We have come a
long way in a short period of time."

Even so, Animal Rights Effort, a student group Benzaquen leads, collected
1,200 signatures from AU students asking the cafeteria to buy only cage-free
eggs.

The next challenge for the students was not one of ethics, but of cost, as
they approached the cafeteria's contractor, Palo Alto, Calif.-based Bon
Appetit Management Co.

The students were in for a lesson in economics and business ethics.

"Battery cages are cheaper," Shapiro said. "The chickens expend fewer
calories since they can't move, so they need less food."

A University of Michigan study put the cost of cage-free eggs at 6 to 7
cents more per egg than battery cage eggs. Benzaquen said this is where the
Humane Society jumped in to help the students locate suppliers and help
assess the costs for the cafeteria. They knew raising meal costs would not
be popular with parents.

But Bon Appetit was willing to absorb the cost if students could locate an
egg supply within a certain price range that they declined to specify.

The company ultimately decided to phase out the use of regular shell eggs at
all of its 200 university and corporate cafeterias across the country and
switch to cage-free eggs by Nov. 15, 2006. The company uses 8 million eggs a
year.

Maisie Ganzler, director of strategic initiatives for Bon Appetit, said the
price is significantly higher now for cage-free eggs. The hope is that
supply will grow with demand and the prices will come down.

"In the long run it will be stable and more in line with Bon Appetit's
commitment to socially responsible purchasing," Ganzler said. The company
already buys hormone-free milk and antibiotic-free meat.

AU students returning from winter break this month have already been eating
cage-free shell eggs. Ganzler said the company hopes to switch to cage-free
liquid eggs soon.

Shapiro applauded what he called Bon Appetit's decision to "put the chicken
before the egg," and to reward students who asked to change their breakfast
menu.

The Bon Appetit decision improves the lives of at least 31,000 chickens,
Shapiro said, and he expects other companies will soon follow its lead.

"The issue shouldn't be controversial," Shapiro said. "Battery cages are so
horrible."

Benzaquen said he won't be celebrating with an omelet or egg salad sandwich
though because he's vegan. He won't claim credit either.

A greater lesson, Benzaquen said, is the power students can have on issues
such as animal rights or workers' wages as universities turn more to
subcontractors for services.

"If students work together," Benzaquen said, "they can have a huge impact on
workers, animals or whatever issue they're trying to help."

On the Net:

American University: http://www.american.edu

The Humane Society of the United States: http://www.hsus.org

Bon Appetit Management Co.: http://www.bamco.com
(Copyright 2005 The Associated Press.