Chickens that lay eggs in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) endure some of the cruelest conditions in industrial agriculture. Most hens spend their short lives in “battery cages” that are about the size of a piece of paper — so small the hens cannot spread their wings. Within a year, they lose their feathers and have their skin rubbed raw from the close contact with other birds.
Forced to lay eggs with no privacy (a very stressful situation for a hen) and live with no space, the industry also painfully severs the end of their beaks to prevent the birds from pecking at each other. Severe health problems are common as a result of their immobility, from spinal cord deterioration leading to paralysis to muscle and bone wasting. As for male chicks, the facilities have no use for them, so they’re ground up alive or suffocated in a plastic bag.1
There are public health issues created by CAFOs as well, from the spread of antibiotic-resistant disease to widespread pollution to the fact that CAFO eggs are more likely to be contaminated with disease-causing bacteria. One study found eggs from hens confined to cages in CAFOs had 7.7 times greater odds of harboring salmonella bacteria than eggs from non-caged hens.2
Battery cages have already been banned in the European Union, but in the U.S., 94 percent of eggs produced come from these inhumane CAFOs.3 The more word has gotten out about the brutal conditions, however, the more demand has increased for more humane eggs — and restaurants and retailers have been listening. About 100 grocery store chains and dozens of restaurants and food manufacturers, including McDonald’s and Walmart, have pledged to stop using caged eggs within the next 10 years.4
According to The Intercept, “These outlets collectively comprise 70 percent of consumer demand in the United States,”5 which is more than enough to prompt real change in the industry. This would require the majority of CAFO egg producers to rethink the cheap way they’re churning out eggs, so not surprisingly there’s been some serious backlash.
Iowa Bill Would Require Stores to Sell CAFO Eggs
A bill introduced in Iowa and already passed by the Iowa House of Representatives would require grocery stores in the state that participate in the Women, Infants and Children federal food assistance program and carry “specialty eggs” such as cage-free or free-range eggs, to also carry CAFO eggs.6
The pitch is that cage-free eggs can be more expensive, so the bill is supposed to protect consumers’ access to cheaper eggs and ensure “consumer choice,” but what it’s really about is protecting the interests of industrialized agriculture. Cody Carlson, an attorney at animal welfare group Mercy for Animals, told The Intercept, “These bills are designed to keep a dying industry afloat that consumers no longer want to support … This is an industry that refuses to change in any meaningful way.”7
It’s incredibly brazen to allow the government to dictate to stores what they must carry, especially when the product in question is one that comes at such a heavy environmental, public health and animal welfare cost. “In Iowa,” The Intercept reported, “the strategy of these corporations now rests on overriding the demands of the market and empowering the government to dictate to stores what they must sell — in particular, barring them from refusing to sell eggs that are the products of grotesque cruelty.”8
Proposition 2 Brought More Humane Eggs to California
Americans yield incredible power when it comes to forcing change in the marketplace, as was demonstrated in California with the passage of Proposition 2 in 2008. The ballot initiative, which “passed in a landslide,” prohibited California egg producers (as well as producers of veal calves and pregnant pigs) from keeping hens in cages too small for them to turn around, stand up, lie down or stretch their limbs.
The measure brought at least some relief to hens raised in cages, but at the same time put the state’s egg producers at a disadvantage to producers from other states, who could produce cheaper eggs without Prop. 2 requirements, then ship them to California to be sold. The state remedied this by applying the Prop. 2 standards to all eggs sold in the state. According to The Intercept:9
“Since Prop 2’s passage, elected officials in Iowa and other egg-producing states have been vigorously fighting to undercut those laws in order to preserve access to California’s massive consumer market for their own egg producers — without requiring them to invest in better conditions for their hens.”
Ironically, one of the key arguments used against Prop. 2 was that it stood contrary to a free market and kept consumers from their freedom of food choice. Now the tables have turned, and consumers are demanding the right to choose eggs from cage-free hens, but Big Ag doesn’t want to hear about it. Chris Holbein of the Humane Society of the United States told The Intercept:10
“It’s extremely hypocritical that Iowa’s factory farmers have pretended for a long time to care about protecting the free market, because now that the free market is turning against them and in favor of more responsible producers that are trying to do the right thing for consumers and animals, the factory producers want the government to force grocery stores to sell a product that is both unsafe and unethical.”
To date, all measures from Iowa that have tried to target Prop. 2 have failed, including in 2016 when Iowa’s governor and five other state attorneys general sued California’s attorney general in order to block Prop. 2 enforcement. Now, California is taking Prop. 2 a step further and proposals have been made to expand minimum cage sizes. Meanwhile, a ballot initiative in the state is calling to get rid of cages entirely, proposing that all California eggs be produced from cage-free hens.