State voters may be asked to decide fate of caged chickens

February 9, 2011 

I decided for this article I would look at one of the moral and cost tradeoffs we face at the grocery store: whether to buy eggs from caged or cage-free chickens.

This issue came before voters in California in 2008, and is rumored to come before Washington voters in an initiative soon.

First some background on chickens.

Chickens are descended from the junglefowl and in captivity have a lifespan about 60 months to 120 months. In a large-scale egg operation, the lifespan of a laying chicken — one specially bred to produce the most eggs over a short period — is about 22 months to 25.5 months.

The hens, depleted from intensive laying, are killed to make processed food or animal feed. Most males from egg laying stock (about 320 million annually in the United States) don’t make it beyond the fuzzy chick stage because they are killed as soon as their gender is determined.

Male meat chickens by contrast are not killed as chicks but their lifespan is generally only 38 days to 49 days before slaughter.

About 96 percent of eggs sold in the United States come from hens who live nearly all of their short lives in a battery cage. These cages vary in size, ranging from 18 inches to 24 inches wide by 20 inches to 25.5 inches deep, and house three to 11 hens. The hens typically have from 48 square inches to 72 square inches of space, less than a piece of copy paper.

Use of these cages began in the 1950s, and became common by the 1970s because they increased egg production and reduced feed costs.

A hen in a battery cage has a very limited ability to walk, lie down, stand upright, stretch her legs, turn around, build a nest, spread her wings, sharpen her claws, and no ability to dust bathe (done to maintain feathers and regulate heat) or to perch (a position chickens use to sleep, establish hierarchy, and excrete).

Studies document the distress of hens attempting to nest but unable to do so without liter materials, a flat nest base, and concealment and the frustration of being unable to spread their wings (which are about 32 inches wide) and consequently rubbing feathers off on cage walls, etc.

Some studies provide evidence of higher levels of bone disease, death, and other complications attributed to the inabililty to exercise. A number of these studies prompted the European Union, California, and Michigan to ban all battery cages.

Supporters of battery cages argue that caged hens are healthier.

Some studies show that mortality, injury or sickness of caged chickens overall is lower due to the reduced exposure to diseased birds and pecking injuries. Professor Peter Skewes of Clemson contends that the existing studies provide inadequate “scientific evidence” that the welfare of caged birds is lower. He is undertaking a USDA- funded study to among other things determine what behaviors caged chickens can exhibit and how much distress genetically selected layer chickens really experience from not engaging in natural chicken behaviors.

Many scoff at these new studies as industry stalling tactics. The New York Times editors writing in support of the California initiative quipped: “To a California voter still undecided on Proposition 2, we say simply, imagine being confined in the voting booth for life. Would you vote for the right to be able to sit down and turn around and raise your arms?”

As to the costs, economists hired by both sides projected that uncaged egg operations would raise the cost of a dozen eggs from 5 percent to 25 percent.

My quick survey of Olympia grocery stores found the cost difference to range from 60 cents to $1, with one notable exception.

Perhaps the best kept secret in Olympia, the Olympia Food Coop sells the Steibrs Sunrise Fresh, Certified Humane, cage-free grade AA eggs, for $2.15 a dozen, which is actually cheaper than any cage egg price I fou nd.

In Olympia, the more moral choice, at least for the moment, is also cheaper.

Brian Faller, a local attorney, is a member of The Olympian’s Board of Contributors. He can be reached at brianfaller@comcast.net.

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