GreenSpace: They want to give cramped chickens their due space

Patti, at 7 the doyenne of the Bauers flock.
Patti, at 7 the doyenne of the Bauers flock. (SANDY BAUERS / Staff)
Posted: July 11, 2011

Patti and Daisy would be so happy.

Patti is my oldest hen, having recently turned 7. Daisy is my youngest, having recently celebrated her seventh week on the planet with a beakful of corn scratch and a contemplative session atop her perch.

I try to give them a good life, and they in turn will give me eggs.

What I wish I could tell them is that their 280 million sisters, give or take, are about to get better digs.

Last Thursday, the Humane Society of the United States and the United Egg Producers announced an agreement to push for federal legislation that would change the way producers house and treat America's egg-laying chickens, a busy lot that pumps out more than 70 eggs per 100 chickens every day.

While animal welfare isn't necessarily integral to sustainability, it certainly seems germane. What is green living if not respect for the planet and its creatures?

The humane society has long been on a campaign against the "battery cages" that it says are widely used in the industry. Hens are crammed into cages that give each bird about as much space as a piece of letter-sized paper. They don't have nests. They can't scratch in the dirt or spread their wings.

The industry group is a cooperative whose members own about 80 percent of the nation's egg-laying hens. They're interested in leveling the field so that growers who provide better - as in more expensive - conditions for hens aren't penalized in the marketplace.

And they feel a national standard would be better than the patchwork of regulations passed or proposed in six states. (None in Pennsylvania, which is third in the nation in egg production.)

They want legislation to require "enriched" cages that would provide double the space, have nest boxes and allow for natural behaviors.

"While it may not mean chicken utopia, it still ensures a much better life for hens," said society spokesman Josh Balk.

The two groups also want to require every carton to disclose what type of production practice was used. And they want, gulp, euthanasia standards for "spent hens," which have quit laying as often.

Like Patti, I might note. But every now and then she manages one - brown - and we're both happy to see it.

Naturally, the world of chickendom is not going to change overnight.

But since the industry and the society are in league, one hopes not even our contentious national legislators will have much to cluck over.

The society and the industry called this an historic agreement. If legislation is enacted, it would be "the first time that chickens used in food production are provided any federal protections at all."

Sheila Rodriguez agrees.

A professor at Rutgers School of Law-Camden, she specializes in animal law and called the agreement "groundbreaking."

She's been on a campaign to have better labeling for egg cartons. Right now, a lot of nice-sounding terms like "certified humane" have little meaning, she said.

In the meantime, she recommends that people who want to support better conditions for chickens try to find a local farm. Or question the egg-buyer in their local store to see where the eggs come from and how the chickens are treated.

Or, as a last resort, go for the cage-free designation.

More folks are doing just that. The society's Balk said that virtually every university in this region has already moved to cage-free eggs.

Students get it, he said. And not just older ones.

Back when she was in fourth grade, Radnor's Anneke Walsh launched a campaign to get the Radnor Township School District to switch to cage-free eggs.

She started with a presentation to her class. Then she sent the president of the school board an e-mail.

A meeting followed. Then more e-mails and phone calls.

At the beginning of Anneke's year in seventh grade, the district made the switch.

Balk, who helped out, was so impressed with Anneke's tenaciousness that he's convinced she's going to head the society some day.

Meanwhile, Anneke, now 14 and headed toward ninth grade and a life of environmental activism, sends letters to governors and such to inform them about other issues that interest her.

Scientists have studied chicken welfare at length, and they can speak in weighty, authoritative terms about what's good for chickens.

But this is what I know:

Chickens lead rich lives. They are very industrious, and they love to scratch and peck and chase insects.

My own backyard hobby flock of 14 has nearly 400 square feet of space - nearly 30 square feet per chicken, most of it outdoors. Plus there's an extra 30 feet of roosting space.

And still they pester me daily, crowding by the door of their pen. When I open it, they burst out like it's a jail break.

They rush off to take dust baths behind the hydrangeas and flap their wings and eat fresh grass shoots and scratch up the flowers and taunt the cat.

Who am I to refuse them?


GreenSpace: Guide to Egg Carton Labels

A condensed carton-label guide from the Humane Society of the United States. The full text at www.humanesociety.org

Free-range or free-roaming: No standards exist. Typically, hens are uncaged with outside access.

Cage-free: Uncaged hens can engage in natural behaviors, but often without access to outdoors.

Certified organic: Birds are uncaged in buildings; some outside access required. So is organic feed.  

Certified humane: Hens typically uncaged. May be kept indoors but must enable natural behaviors.

Animal Welfare Approved: Highest standards that are independently audited. But these eggs are hard to find.

American Humane Certified: Allows cage and cage-free.

Food Alliance Certified: Cage-free, natural daylight required, must encourage natural behaviors.

United Egg Producers Certified: Industry program that allows factory farm practices and crowded "battery" cages.


Contact staff writer Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147 or sbauers@phillynews.com. Visit her blog at http://go.philly.com/greenspace

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