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Cage-Free Eggs

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Walmart has announced it will transition to all cage-free eggs by 2025. What does this mean? Is it a good thing? Is it more ethical to eat eggs now?

If you’re picturing happy flocks of chickens scratching away for insects on a sunny hillside somewhere (the kind of images egg companies love to adorn their cartons with), you’d be wrong. Cage-free facilities can still be industrial-scale chicken farming where thousands of hens spend their lives indoors in what many would consider cramped conditions.

Walmart will require all their egg suppliers to be certified by United Egg Producers and compliant with the trade organization’s Animal Husbandry Guidelines. The UEP—which represents U.S. chicken farmers who own about 95 percent of the country’s laying hens—updated its guidelines this year, including the standards for cage-free operations. Based on the guidelines each hen should be allotted between 1 and 1.5 square feet of space and 6 inches of elevated perch space, and 15 percent of the usable floor of the hen house must be a scratch area. This setup allows the birds to exhibit some of their natural instincts such as dust-bathing, scratching, perching, and wing flapping. There’s no provision that the birds be allowed outdoors.

One issue not fully addressed by Walmart is beak trimming, the practice of removing part of the top and bottom of a bird’s beak in order to prevent the animals from pecking each other in close quarters under stressful conditions—and in some cases cannibalizing each other. (The term “pecking order” is very much rooted in reality.) The procedure is painful, sometimes chronically so, and may reduce the chicken’s ability to eat. The UEP suggests that it only be carried out by “properly trained personnel monitored regularly for quality control,” that egg producers use more docile breeds that don’t require beak trimming, and that the procedure be done only when necessary to prevent feather pecking and cannibalism.

The open question is whether it is possible to have industrial farming of animals under some sort of ethical standards? I maintain that it is possible, or at least it is something we should strive for under any circumstances. Without outside monitoring, I worry that the egg lobby won’t really follow through, but Walmart is a powerful player and that should be the focus of efforts to enforce this. So obviously this is something of an improvement, where a chicken’s life is at least a little bit like a chicken’s life should be. But it’s certainly not great, not with the beak trimming. Chickens are easy enough to have around that people having them in their yards should be encouraged, although not roosters. It’s a small animal that can live a decent life and produce for human consumption without really harming them. As in the rest of the industrial food system, there’s a long ways to go and a lot of work to be done. But at least this is a little something to build upon.

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