A fix in the henhouse|
Egg industry stalked by pressure to give its birds more room
By Todd Hartman, Rocky Mountain News
October 16, 2002
PLATTEVILLE - The hens at pastoral Morning Fresh Farms produce
700,000 eggs a day, but you'd never know it heading up the long
driveway. There isn't a chicken in sight.
They're stored in elongated barns, packed in cages stacked almost
floor to ceiling, 12 to 16 rows high. These hens are protein
machines, each cranking out 250 eggs per year in what farmers call a
triumph of agricultural efficiency.
Industry critics, though, call such operations inhumane. And in a
seismic shift in the world of factory farming, animal rights groups
have scored a small, yet stunning victory for the chickens.
The egg industry, surrendering to pressure that has been exerted on
its biggest customers, is giving its hens a hair more room. Now
allotted about 48 square inches of space apiece, hens will eventually
get up to 67 square inches in which to squat their lives away before
the inevitable conversion into pot pies.
On one hand, the change is puny. One chicken will still have less
space than an 8-by-10-inch photograph. But looked at another way, the
agreement marks a surprising concession.
"The entire Western world is becoming educated about how the modern
egg industry is treating its birds - which is badly," said Karen
Davis, head of Virginia-based watchdog group United Poultry Concerns.
The shift also bolsters a trend suggested by the growing market for
natural foods: that Americans are paying increasing attention to
where food actually comes from.
"We focus on what the customer wants," said Rex Thorpe, controller
for Morning Fresh Farms, an hour drive north of Denver. "I've never
questioned whether we should do it or not - if the customer wants it,
that's what we're here to do."
In the egg world, Morning Fresh Farms has a better reputation than
most - a model for the industry in the words of one competitor. It
was one of the earliest signatories to a voluntary agreement with its
industry trade organization, United Egg Producers, to give its hens
more room. And already, the company has entered the first phase of a
10-year UEP compliance plan, cutting some of its mammoth henhouses
from 30,000 to 28,000 birds. Moreover, the company was already giving
some of its hens more space than industry standards.
Morning Fresh Farms predicts the new standards will cost the company
more than $1 million because of the need to construct more henhouses
to comply with the additional space requirements.
"We're further ahead of the curve than most producers," said Derek
Yancey, Morning Fresh's president.
Still, Morning Fresh, like other egg farmers contacted by the Rocky
Mountain News, wouldn't allow a reporter or photographer inside its
henhouses. Company officials said they have to keep their birds safe
from avian diseases people might carry on the bottoms of their shoes.
Critics call that claim a conventional industry excuse to keep the
public from witnessing the crowding behind henhouse walls.
Morning Fresh calls itself Colorado's largest egg producer in a state
that is home to only a few major egg farms. At least two of those
have also agreed to give their hens more space. A spokesman for one,
Sparboe Farms in Hudson said the company is just getting started,
cutting flocks by the 5 percent called for in the first phase.
The space standards could add 5 to 10 cents to the cost of producing
a dozen eggs, said Garth Sparboe, a sales and marketing executive for
the Minnesota-based company.
Whether consumers will pick up the tab isn't clear, but Sparboe said
the company isn't opposed to the project.
"The American grocery shopper has interests and needs that have
changed over time, and the egg industry is attempting to work in that
arena," Sparboe said.
Still, he and other industrial officials say, the public has the
efficiency of present-day industrial egg-farming methods to thank for
such an affordable protein source. A dozen eggs sell for about $1.20
in the grocery store.
But cheap eggs don't justify animal cruelty, activists say. And the
new space requirements for chickens - while signaling an important
shift in the treatment of farm animals - mean little in practical
terms, they say.
"In my opinion, it's a program that allows (the egg industry) to say
they're doing something, while doing very, very little," said Cyd
Szymanski, owner of Colorado Natural Eggs, which buys its eggs only
from "cage-free" chicken flocks. Cage-free chickens are still crowded
inside barns, but unlike their caged brethren can walk around and
spread their wings a bit.
One industry critic with high credibility within the agriculture
community is Colorado State University assistant professor of animal
science Temple Grandin, best known for designing slaughterhouses for
livestock that reduce stress on the animal prior to death. She said
the egg industry is improving, but the new standards are too weak.
"Some of these people have forgotten a hen is a live animal," Grandin
said. "This is what happens when people get totally desensitized to
Grandin said the industry is still held back by old-guard,
animals-as-machines views that are standing in the way of more
progressive approaches. She said in many cases, hens are still
crammed so tight in cages they can't lie down.
But she had kinder words for another set of hen standards pushed by
McDonald's restaurants. Those will give the hens slightly more room,
72 square inches apiece. And unlike the United Egg Producers
standards, McDonald's is requiring compliance now, instead of over a
10-year period. The company will audit its suppliers, and won't buy
eggs from producers that don't meet the standards.
For their part, egg farmers say they are unfairly vilified by animal
rights activists, who focus on the worst-run operations and paint the
industry with too broad of a brush. They say egg farms are designed
to protect chickens from predators and from the pecking of fellow
chickens, as well as to keep the process sanitary and products safe
for consumers. Well-cared-for animals are crucial to producing a good
egg, they say.
Ken Klippen, a Washington D.C., lobbyist for egg producers, argues
that a caged environment is "more humane" from the standpoint of the
"They're less prone to disease, they're not pecking at their own
droppings, they're less prone to parasites," Klippen said.
Klippen said it was changes by the European Union, which is phasing
out chicken cages altogether by 2012, that led the egg producers to
modify cage standards in the United States. The industry, he said,
wanted to take action before any U.S. government mandates.
Asked about the reluctance to allow a reporter inside a henhouse,
Klippen cited the concern of disease. "We don't have anything to
hide," he said.
But Dave Turunjian, an egg farmer in Niwot, says otherwise. He used
to let people look at his endless row of chicken cages and they'd
come away teary-eyed. "It was just a depressing sight, seeing them
packed in there," he said.
Now, Turunjian runs a cage-free operation - and lets visitors in all
the time to see his 12,000-bird barns.
He sells his product to Szymanski's Colorado Natural Eggs. The
company has cornered 8 percent of the Colorado egg market - despite
eggs selling for around $2.70 a dozen. And Szymanski, citing the
growing popularity of cage-free eggs in Europe, believes the market
for such eggs will only grow.
"People are more and more concerned about the environment, about what
they eat, what they breathe," Szymanski said. "I don't think this is
going away. I'm glad to be on this side of it, not the other."
Caption 1: Morning Fresh Farms employee Jessica Garcia uses lights to
view the interior of eggs. She is looking for poor quality, dirt,
blood spots and cracks that may require the eggs to be recleaned or
rejected. Colorado's egg industry is moving toward giving its laying
hens more room in henhouses that use cages.
Caption 2: Chickens roam free at Hillside Egg Farm near Niwot. Dave
Turunjian, who runs the egg farm, says he used to let visitors view
the operation when it still used cages, and the people would come
away teary-eyed. "It was just a depressing sight, seeing (the birds)
packed in there," he says. Now Turunjian uses a cage-free operation
and still lets visitors view the 12,000-bird barns. The response has
been much better.
United Poultry Concerns, Inc.|
PO Box 150
Machipongo, VA 23405-0150
(Battery Hens: Egg industry stalked by pressure to give its birds more room )