February 21, 2010
I’m in Tucson as I write this, where I was attending a meeting of the United Egg Producers (UEP) Scientific Advisory Committee (SAC). The UEP is the trade association for commercial egg producers. Most of their members are producing at a very large scale and most of their layers are kept in cages. This kind of egg production has been a frequent target of people who criticize factory farming. So, you might ask, what am I doing talking to these guys?
The answer is that in my view UEP is taking the lead among all commodity groups that represent large-scale farming to address critical issues. A little more than a decade ago (well before I was on the SAC) they formed this committee as a body that they could go to for advice about the welfare of their hens. The process works like this: A group representing members (the Producer’s Committee) formulates specific questions for the SAC, and the SAC, which includes veterinarians and specialists in poultry behavior and animal welfare, makes recommendations. The Producer Committee then takes action based on these recommendations. The producers adopt official UEP husbandry guidelines (which thus far closely resemble SAC recommendations), and have created a certification audit that determines whether or not a given producer is in compliance with the guidelines.
Although compliance with guidelines is voluntary, approximately 80 percent of the “shell eggs” produced in the United States are covered under the UEP certification program. A “shell egg” is an egg sold in the shell. Lots of eggs sold to the food industry are sold in liquid form, and that market falls outside the purview of UEP. Husbandry guidelines have been developed for both cage and non-cage production systems. I sat through some excruciatingly boring meetings where the vets and animal scientists debated how much perching space birds need in the non-cage (or “free range”) production systems. There ain’t much that a philosopher can contribute to that conversation! However at least two accomplishments that this approach has achieved are worthy of note by a food ethicist.
First, the UEP Guidelines stipulate minimum space requirements for hens in cages. This has led to a significant reduction in the crowding that was the most critical welfare issue in egg production a decade ago, and that still remains an issue for those producers who choose not to follow UEP guidelines. The guidelines also address a number of other sensitive areas in animal care in both cage and non-cage systems that I will not try to explain here. So the approach has led to an improvement in animal welfare. Second, and of equal importance, the UEP provides an example that large scale commodity organizations might use to remediate (I don’t say permanently resolve) some of the most pressing social and environmental problems that have been brought on by the rise of industrial agriculture.
The SAC does not involve itself in making judgments about “the best” method of egg production. SAC advice is limited to specific questions posed by producers. This leaves some questions, like whether we should even have caged layer production at all, unaddressed by the SAC. I have two reactions to this situation that may seem to contradict one another. On the one hand, I recognize that this entire approach to addressing ethical issues depends on external pressure from activists and the general public. I do not think that egg producers would have moved as quickly to make reforms in the absence of this pressure. Other producer organizations of industrial farmers have more frequently been content to remain in a defensive posture, throwing stones at their critics. So the UEP deserves some credit, but I am, on this hand, inclined to tell all you critics out there, “Keep the heat on!”
On the other hand, I don’t think that we are ready to see large-scale egg production disappear, and I think that some of the criticisms are well off the mark. What would the alternative to industrial egg production look like? Thornapple members may have seen the chickens on the Appleschram farm. This is essentially a hobby activity for Diane. She is very devoted to it, and works hard at it. From one perspective, you could look at Diane’s chickens and say that they are leading the ethically ideal life. That, you could say, is what all egg production should be like. Yet Diane has lost about 20% of her chickens, presumably to predators. And today she told me that she saw a raccoon sleeping in the barn, which explains why we haven’t been getting many eggs lately. Now I know that there is a lot of room between Diane’s operation and that of a large scale caged layer production, but the contrast is sufficient to make an important ethical point.
Even if you set aside the animal welfare questions about a 20% death rate—the rate in a typical caged layer facility is more like 2% and this is achieved through husbandry, not hormones or antibiotics—operations that resemble Diane’s raise ethical questions about the price and reliability of the egg supply. Eggs are a legitimate component of a healthy diet. One can do without them, for sure, but many people in our society would have great difficulty in maintaining healthy vegan diets. Some people that are closer to or under the poverty line are perfectly capable of raising their own chickens, and unlike Diane they have no qualms about combating interloping raccoons. Other families on limited incomes would be resorting to Cheetos, Red Bull, or whatever else they could get at the convenience store. I don’t mean to get preachy, but there are many in our society who depend on fast food and convenience stores for a major part of their diet, and as long as that remains the case, having a reliable supply of inexpensive eggs (either in cartons, as egg salad or as the proverbial Egg McMuffin) is one of the best choices they can make.
Non-cage systems are an alternative to the caged system that are lots bigger than Diane’s henhouse. They can provide a reliable egg supply, albeit at a higher cost than a caged layer system. I don’t think we should be seeking the absolute rock bottom price for eggs. I don’t push the consumer argument that far. But when non-cage systems get to a commercial scale, other animal welfare problems begin to crop up. Birds get aggressive, for example. While “free range” can be an environment where the dominant birds are free to express their aggressive instincts, it is not at all clear that this is the best environment for less dominant birds. For the time being at least, then, it is not at all clear that non-cage is the best system from an animal welfare ethics perspective.
There’s more—too much more—to say about egg ethics, but I’ve got to leave it aside for now because I already in too deep. I’ll finish by saying I’m quite happy to help the UEP make progress toward animal welfare within the constraints of our current industrial food system. I don’t think of them as “the bad guys”, and I wish more animal producer groups would follow their example.
Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University.