Unscrambling the egg debate
As animal advocates and the egg industry square off over Prop 2, a local farmer provides an alternative
It’s Thursday morning, and Nancy Schleiger is gathering the cartons of assorted blue and brown eggs she has collected during the week from her two dozen Araucana and Rhode Island Red hens on her two-acre Durham farm.
Like the milkman of days gone by, Schleiger—an affable, fresh-faced 64-year-old who dresses in blue jeans and drives a 1964 Ford pickup truck—carries her product right to the front door of the Chico houses on her weekly route. She delivers 5 1¼2 dozen eggs—almost exactly what her chickens lay in a week—to four regular customers.
Schleiger also works as a landscape designer and runs a shadehouse nursery and vegetable garden on her farm. Most of the vegetables are for personal consumption, but she sells the extras—plus the herbs, veggie starts and ornamental perennials that she cultivates—regularly at the local farmers market. She started the year-round delivery service about two years ago because she needed to do something with the excess eggs that accumulated during the winter months when she wasn’t selling at the market.
“I don’t think of my [egg] operation as commercially viable,” said Schleiger about her word-of-mouth business. “I’m not just doing it for the eggs. It’s just part of my little farmette. … It’s a whole completely different thing than a commercial egg operation.”
What happens on Schleiger’s idyllic little farm is indeed very different from what goes on at most large-scale, commercial egg producers.
Last year, more than 77 billion eggs were laid by approximately 280 million hens at factory farms across the country. Ninety-five percent of those hens, as is standard according to guidelines set up by United Egg Producers, are kept in small wire enclosures known as battery cages, typically housing five to 10 hens each.
In California, battery-cage egg production is one of the targets of Proposition 2—the Standards for Confining Farm Animals initiative—on November’s ballot.
If passed, Prop 2 would prohibit the confinement of egg-producing chickens, veal calves and pregnant sows in cages or crates that do not allow them to turn around freely, lie down, stand up or fully extend their limbs. The measure is supported by the Humane Society of the United States, the Center for Food Safety and the California Veterinary Medical Association, among others.
Battery cages have been used for the better part of a century, but have come under increased scrutiny since the recent release of undercover video taken at several large egg producers in the state.
Posing as an employee at a huge factory egg farm in Menifee, Calif., a representative of animal-rights organization Mercy for Animals filmed the operating practices of Norco Ranch earlier this year. Available for viewing on the Internet, the footage shows debeaked hens struggling to move within cramped, filthy cages stacked tier upon tier inside a windowless warehouse. Hens—some with large areas of their bodies rubbed raw—shuffle in place, sometimes stepping on the rotting corpses of other chickens.
The film reveals a blood-covered egg from a bird suffering from a prolapsed uterus; another egg crawls with mites.
Nancy Reimers, a poultry veterinarian from the Central Valley town of Gustine who represents the official Los Angeles-based no-on-2 campaign called Californians for Safe Food, said that “if [Proposition 2] were to pass, it poses a potential detriment to both hen health and human health.”
Reimers, speaking recently by cell phone while traveling, described battery cages as a modern hen-housing system created in the 1920s that protects chickens from predators and diseases carried by wild birds. This system, she says, is more healthful because it separates the hens and eggs from the manure and “prevents salmonella enteritidis,” the type of salmonella commonly associated with eggs. She also praised the California Egg Quality Assurance Plan as “a program where farmers have good farming practices and good sanitation, and are housing the birds well.”
The Center for Food Safety’s position counters those health claims: “Extreme intensive confinement can have potentially serious public health and food safety implications and should be phased out as is being done in the European Union.” Animal advocates also strongly disagree and point to the video by Mercy for Animals and other footage by Farm Sanctuary as evidence.
When asked whether she has viewed either of the videos, Reimers said she had not: “You know, I have dial-up. I don’t watch videos on the Internet.”
Farm Sanctuary’s video chronicles another egg giant, Gemperle Farms, in the Central Valley farming town of Turlock. It was taken in 2005 and 2007 by undercover investigators connected with the well-known animal protection organization, based in nearby Orland and Watkins Glen, NY.
“After the Norco video, inspectors went in there and said that things were being run up to par,” said Julie Janovsky, director of campaigns for Farm Sanctuary. “If that’s par, then we have another whole set of issues!”
Speaking by phone from New York, Janovsky recalled growing up as a child spending summers on her dad’s poultry and cattle farm in northern Wisconsin.
“The small farmers I knew would never dream of taking a living, breathing animal and putting it in a box to where they can’t move,” she said. “These big egg producers—they’re producers, not farms—like to say they’re modern systems, yet they fail to have any kind of semblance of humane treatment. Giving chickens enough room to stretch their wings is the least we can do.”
Janovsky has viewed both tapes, but she’s also witnessed the inner workings of a battery-cage operation.
“They are prisons of stench and manure and the frustration and suffering of the animals is palpable,” she said. “The cages are stacked, and the animals on the bottom must live with excrement falling from above. Sick birds litter the ground. The sheer density of the animals, the cages, coupled with the sick and injured animals—it is clear that there is no way that these cages provide any facet of humane treatment.”
Janovsky reiterated that Prop 2 requires that hens live in spaces where they can perform many of their natural behaviors, such as walking, nesting and spreading their wings. The initiative does not require the animals to go outdoors.
Prop 2 opponents say the measure will drive sales out of California, but Janovsky said a lot of the money being spent to defeat the initiative is coming from out of state.
“The reason they want to defeat [the measure] is two-part,” she said. “They know that people are realizing that these chickens are not little egg-making machines, they’re animals. And the whole industry is realizing that they’re going to have to change the way the egg industry is run.”
Janovsky pointed out that the egg industry’s own economist says that it would cost less than a penny per egg for the conversion from battery-caged to cage-free, and that producers would have until the year 2015 to make the changes. She added that this has been a record year for profit for the egg industry.
Farm Sanctuary’s probe—while not resulting in any citations for Gemperle—did cause popular grocer Trader Joe’s to stop selling eggs from Gemperle Farms under its own label. However, the specialty grocer continues to sell battery-cage eggs under the “Sun Valley” label—and it is not alone. In fact, an overwhelming majority of grocery-store eggs are “United Egg Producers Certified"—or battery-cage produced. Consumers who want to avoid them should look for packaging denoting the eggs are “cage-free,” “certified organic,” “free-range,” “certified humane” or “free-roaming.”
Consumers can also look to local farmers like Schleiger.
“People always just say my eggs are so great,” said Schleiger, when asked about her customers’ response. “They say they taste better than store-bought eggs. There’s a difference in flavor and appearance.”
She charges $4 a dozen for eggs that come from chickens that primarily live outdoors in one of two 30-by-50-foot fenced-in garden areas (they have a coop in which to seek shelter when necessary). The birds are rotated between enclosures every few months, depending on the stages of gardening. Besides laying eggs and acting as walking “pesticide,” the hens (and four roosters) also provide manure used as fertilizer.
Schleiger offers her understanding of why battery cages have been business-as-usual: “To me, it all comes down to cheap food, and people want cheap food. But they don’t understand what it takes to do that—warehousing animals, cramming as many as possible into a given space.”
She adds: “The more people know about the way animals are raised, the more they might be willing to pay a little more for their food to make sure it’s raised in a humane way.”