Free bird

‘Cage-free’ doesn’t always mean hens live a happy life

Cage-free hens still get locked in small spaces, may never see daylight and also may have their beaks clipped.

Cage-free hens still get locked in small spaces, may never see daylight and also may have their beaks clipped.

illustration by priscilla garcia

Not all egg farmers are honest. In fact, the egg industry in America, with its 280 million hens, is largely unguarded from disingenuous claims about animal welfare.

Farmer Dan Jones usually tells his farmers-market customers that his eggs are from hens that are “pasture-raised,” though he sometimes calls them “free-range” or “cage-free.” These phrases may conjure up images of open range and free-roaming birds, which is an accurate painting of Jones’ small operation.

He owns Islote Farms near Esparto, where about 1,000 chickens roam the 10-acre property. At night, the birds file voluntarily back into their coops, which Jones leaves open in case some birds should wish to come or go in the wee hours. A llama named Dali guards the flock against predators, and each morning Jones collects and washes about 900 eggs by hand while the hens take once more to another day in the fields.

But not all chicken farms are such happy places, and not all egg farmers are as truthful as Jones.

“There’s nothing in the law to stop anyone from saying that their birds, cramped into a warehouse, are ‘pasture-raised,’” Jones explained.

He’s right. Erica Meier, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based organization Compassion Over Killing, says that “free-range” and “cage-free” hens may have their beaks removed—a common industry practice. Moreover, “free-range” farms must offer their birds an open outdoor space, but this space may be small. Moreover, access to it may be very poor, and many “free-range” chickens might see the light of day rarely, if ever.

At the Humane Society of the United States, spokesperson Josh Balk explains that egg producers who keep their hens in cages cannot claim otherwise, but he concedes that “misleading advertising” does occur. Meier suggests that consumers personally inspect farms.

“The best way to truly see if animals are being raised the way the producers claim is to shop at farmers markets and even visit the farm,” she said.

Backyard egg farming is another increasingly popular option.

“Since about 2009, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in backyard chickens,” said Marji Beach, education manager with Animal Place, a Grass Valley-based shelter for rescued or retired farm animals. Animal Place commonly receives farm hens that have been replaced by younger, more productive birds, and these chickens—which still produce eggs almost daily—are quickly adopted.

“In the last year-and-a-half especially, it’s been incredible how many requests we receive for laying hens,” Beach said.

Beach attributes the rise in demand to the growing “locavore” movement and the snowballing interest in organic, healthier foods.

Animal Place currently has about 3,000 laying hens available for adoption—a temporary inundation following a recent farm closure in Turlock. Here, the owner of A&L Poultry abandoned 50,000 egg hens for two weeks without care or food. Thousands starved, many more were put down by authorities, and in the end about 4,600 birds were saved. Beach says applicants hoping to adopt the birds may be screened to assure that chickens are not reinitiated into the commercial egg industry.

Better days for American chickens may be coming. In 2008, California voters passed Proposition 2, which by 2015 will essentially banish cages from the state’s egg industry, in which most of its 19 million hens currently live in cramped quarters.

Jones, although he doesn’t use cages, does not support the incoming regulations, which he believes could upend California’s egg industry. He expects, for instance, that egg-producing costs will rise sharply, and farmers that don’t jack up their prices may just leave the state.

His own practices will not be affected, though, and his eggs will remain at local markets—for $6 a dozen.

“There are people who can’t afford that,” said Jones, who appears at the Davis Farmers Market in Davis and at the Central Farmers Market in Sacramento. “It would be nice to see only pasture-raised eggs, but it’s an expensive way to farm, and the world needs a cheap egg.”