Wegmans Cruelty: An Unofficial Blog

This is an unofficial blog and informational archive related to the WEGMANSCRUELTY film and resulting campaign.

Please see that page for more information.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The Yolk of Oppression: Eggs Are Latest Front In Humane-Food Wars

[see also "
Bon Appetit Puts the Chicken Before the Egg"]

October 18, 2005; Page D1

It's getting easier to make a politically correct omelette.

In a move that signals the increasing importance of animal-welfare issues to the food industry, a large food-service company is expected to announce today that it will buy eggs only from hens that have not been confined in cages.

The action by Bon Appétit Management Co., which operates 200 cafeterias in colleges and corporate campuses, comes on the heels of similar bird-liberating pledges by retailers and colleges around the country.

In January, Whole Foods Market Inc., which has 177 stores nationwide, began selling only eggs and foods that include eggs from hens not raised in cages. Wild Oats Markets Inc., with 80 stores, adopted a similar policy last spring.

The policies promoting cage-free eggs are the latest examples of how animal-welfare issues have moved into the mainstream. Last year, California passed a law banning the force-feeding of birds to create foie gras; a number of states have similar bills on the table. And several restaurants around the country only serve veal from calves raised in a less-confined environment.

Some food companies are marketing their products as not only more wholesome than conventional fare, but also ethically superior. Products are promoted as being free of genetically modified crops or "local," that is, produced by farmers close to the area where products are sold. Many companies, from Smithfield Foods Inc., a major pork producer, to McDonald's Corp. have announced new antibiotic policies that limit the amount or kind of the drugs they will allow producers to use. Eggs reflect particularly well the plethora of claims now on the market: Today, many cartons are plastered with language including organic, free-range, "pastured," omega-3-enriched and antibiotic-free.

But in Europe, as a result of the threat of avian flu, some chickens are losing certain freedoms. In late September, the Netherlands adopted new, temporary standards for the management of free-range birds. Because of concerns that these chickens could come into contact with wild, migratory birds that could be disease carriers, outdoor areas must now be equipped with nets and shields to protect the chickens from wild birds and their droppings.

The movement toward cage-free birds has been a boon for some egg companies in the U.S. At Egg Innovations in Port Washington, Wisc., which sells only cage-free eggs, sales are up 20% so far this month over the same period last year; Eggland's Best in King of Prussia, Penn., which sells a variety of egg styles, says its total sales are up 10% through September over the same period last year, and its cage-free egg sales are up 49%.

Several companies and schools say they started buying cage-free eggs after being lobbied by the Humane Society of the United States, which began a campaign in January to halt what it calls abusive "factory farming" methods. "Caged birds suffer so immensely," says Paul Shapiro, manager of the factory-farming campaign at the Humane Society. Critics say the cages are cruel because they do not give birds enough space to flap their wings and express other natural bird behavior.

Some scientists disagree. Jeff Armstrong, dean of agriculture and natural resources at Michigan State University, was asked by the United Egg Producers, a trade group for the egg industry, in 1998 to oversee a panel of scientists and recommend new animal-welfare guidelines. He says that nearly twice as many chickens die when they are raised without cages, because they peck each other and suffer from more diseases.

"Cages are a humane way to raise hens, as long as some changes are made" to the system, says Mr. Armstrong. The new guidelines he helped develop, since adopted by about 80% of U.S. egg farmers, call for an average of 62 square inches per bird, up from 48, and increase to as much as 76 square inches over the next few years as the plan is phased in. Farmers must also remove chicken manure continually from the cages.

There are three basic methods of raising laying hens: caged, cage-free and free-range. The vast majority world-wide -- about 98% -- are caged. Cage-free birds do not spend any time in cages; instead, they roam the floor of a hen house. Free-range birds are those that are allowed to spend at least some portion of their lives in the outdoors, though not necessarily on grass, while hens that are set out on grass are known as pastured.

Egg farmers use cages to separate birds from each other and to help maintain cleanliness, which reduces disease, says Julian Madeley, director general of the International Egg Commission, a trade group for egg farmers around the world.

Eggs from caged and noncaged birds taste the same and have the same nutritional profile, but cage-free eggs typically sell for as much as three times more than regular ones. In September, the average price for regular, large grade-A eggs was $1.28 a dozen.

The only eggs with a nutritional difference are those that come from "pastured" hens, says Michael Hamm, a professor of sustainable agriculture at Michigan State University. Their unique diet yields eggs higher in omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin E. Only a tiny percentage of eggs come from birds raised this way, and are usually sold at farmer's markets.

This fall, Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa, began purchasing only cage-free shell eggs and liquid eggs at a cost of an extra five to six thousand dollars a year. Since April, George Washington University in Washington, D.C., has sold only cage-free eggs in its student grocery store, and Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., says it plans to start serving only cage-free shell eggs, pasteurized egg whites, liquid eggs and all other egg products in its food-service operations within three weeks.

Bon Appétit -- a unit of U.K.-based food-services giant Compass Group PLC -- buys about eight million shell eggs a year, as well as an unknown quantity of liquid eggs, which are not currently included in the cage-free pledge but may be in the future, says spokeswoman Maisie Ganzler.


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