Life and Death on Little Rhody Egg Farms
From Battery Cage to Live Market
By Christa Albrecht-Vegas
When Rhode Islanders hear the term “factory farm,” they probably think of larger agricultural states like California, where last November’s election saw the passage of a ballot initiative mandating that chickens, breeding sows and veal calves be granted enough physical space within their enclosures to turn around, lie down comfortably and fully extend their limbs. It may come as a shock to many in this, the smallest little state in the union, that we are harboring what may be the smallest little factory farm in the union.
Little Rhody Egg Farms, a windowless battery cage operation in Foster, Rhode Island, warehouses just under 40,000 Bovan Brown egg-laying hens. The Bovan Brown is a crossbreed of the Rhode Island Red, icon of the classic American barnyard. What better way to pay homage to our state bird than perpetuate its exploitation through selective breeding? While Little Rhody relies on its image as a small family farm, as well as the public’s desire to buy green and locally (as evidenced in its updated, environmentally friendly packaging), it follows a much more industrial model of production.
Eli Berkowitz, whose parents started Little Rhody and began producing eggs commercially in the 1950s, co-owns and manages the farm. During the 1990s, Little Rhody began to diversity and transition from its role in production to being primarily a distributor of eggs, as well as dairy and a variety of other foods produced within the state. While Little Rhody still produces the generic eggs it has offered for decades, it also distributes brands such as Eggland’s Best, Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs and Land O’Lakes, working with the competition to meet the increasingly popular demand for cage-free, organic, and other specialty brand eggs. Little Rhody retailers include Stop and Shop, Shaws, CVS and Walgreens, as well as many independent grocers, restaurants and convenience stores throughout Rhode Island, Southeastern Massachusetts and Eastern Connecticut.
Berkowitz takes a pragmatic approach to farming eggs. While he acknowledges the public’s growing concern for the welfare of animals in the food industry, Little Rhody doesn’t show consideration for the hens as individuals within its own production line. Berkowitz’s sentiments remain in line with the more economically-minded shopper
“No one wants to pay $5.00 for a dozen eggs,” he says. “They’d like to pay 99 cents, but realistically, to feed the masses of the country and make sure people have food on their table, you have to find better ways so the chicken consumes the feed, stays healthy and makes eggs.”
One of Little Rhody’s “better ways” has been the adoption of a battery cage system, wherein the birds are each allotted approximately 68 square inches of physical space within their enclosures, an area slightly smaller than a sheet of notebook paper, which does not even accommodate the birds’ natural urge to spread their wings.
“Today, you see people who are concerned that the birds aren’t being treated fairly in cages,” Berkowitz says. “To be honest, I don’t agree with that. If the birds aren’t treated properly, they don’t produce. They need to be in a happy environment too, if you want to call it happy. If they’re healthy, they eat well, they have water . . . they produce.”
I can’t speak for the average Jane, but in my personal experience, ovulation does not fluctuate with my mood swings or level of self-actualization. Nor can you extrapolate from the flow of feminine hygiene products into a women’s correctional institution that the women using them are necessarily “happy” or fulfilled human beings.
“When I walk through my building,” Berkowitz goes on to say, “and I hear them all cackling and talking – the louder I get, the louder they get. They always want to be heard – that means they’re talking. They’re happy.” By this logic, it may be safe to assume that we’ve been misreading the sentiments behind those clichéd images of captives rattling metal cups against their prison bars.
Little Rhody’s hens are painfully debeaked without anesthesia to deal with the frustrated feather-pecking that bedevils chickens crowded and deprived of foraging opportunities, and the company also engages in forced molting, a practice wherein a flock that has ceased to produce optimal egg yields is deprived of food for a period of days or weeks sufficient to trigger a physiological shock and force the birds to molt simultaneously. Deprived of food, the hens stop laying eggs. When their food is restored, the surviving hens lay fewer but larger eggs, adding to their suffering by having to expel those “Jumbo” eggs with their weakened muscles onto the wire floor of their cages.
So inhumane is forced molting by starvation that even United Egg Producers (the U.S. industry trade group) opposes complete food deprivation, as opposed to a “restricted feed” molt. Berkowitz, who has never applied for certification by United Egg Producers, prefers to follow his family’s longstanding practice. In forced molting, he removes all food from the birds until they have lost 15-20% of their body fat.
“We try to be really gentle about it . . .” says Berkowitz. “It’s like fasting. Some people fast. Certain religions do it for a reason. Chickens do the same thing. I kind of equate it with that.” Call me a stickler for devotion, but isn’t there an element of free choice in religious fasting? Berkowitz seems to be confusing torture with abstinence.
Though small on the scale of factory farms, Little Rhody demonstrates the sad reality that it is not possible to mass-produce animal derived foods humanely. From their origins in commercial hatcheries, where day-old “egg-type” chicks are typically debeaked and sorted by gender – the male chicks being literally thrown alive into dumpsters or ground up in industrial garbage disposals – to their ultimate end as pet food, farm animal feed or landfill, birds on factory farms are a far cry from happy. Little Rhody disposes of many of its own birds at the Antonelli Poultry Company, a live market in the Federal Hill district of Providence, Rhode Island.
For a more avian perspective on what makes chickens happy, I turned to Karen Davis, founder and president of United Poultry Concerns, a nonprofit based in Machipongo, Virginia that advocates for a vegan lifestyle and the humane treatment of domestic fowl. “All the chickens we’ve ever had, whether they’re Bantams or Rhode Island Reds or the so-called 'broiler' chickens from the meat industry or the white leghorn hens who are the main types of hens used for the commercial battery cage industry – whatever they’re called, what they all have in common is that they want to run around a lot. They’re very active, and they need things to satisfy their curiosity. Chickens are not intended to live in environments where there is nothing but metal or some type of wire enclosure. They need stimulation.”
Some of the universal pleasures of poultry include foraging in foliage, scratching for what the fresh earth yields to them, sunbathing in the afternoon, dustbathing, perching on straw bales, and gathering themselves into small, busy groups throughout the day. And hens like having roosters around them. Karen says that so-called “cannibalism” and other abnormal behaviors among chickens are the result of confinement in commercial settings that prevent the birds from exercising their true natures. Given adequate space, even roosters can get along. Karen speaks fondly of Rhubarb, a Rhode Island Red rooster at her shelter who, in cooperation with two other roosters, conscientiously cares for the hens in his flock.
In light of the fact that our society fails to extend even minimal legal protection to poultry, such as inclusion under the provisions of the Federal Humane Slaughter Act, and given that most people don’t have ample resources to create private sanctuaries, perhaps the greatest gesture we as consumers can make on the birds’ behalf is to acknowledge the unpleasant realities occurring on the peripheries of our awareness. There is no better time than now to adopt a vegan lifestyle.
Little Rhody Disposes of Many of its Birds at the Antonelli Poultry Company
Christa Albrecht-Vegas is a freelance writer based in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. She is a member of Rhode Island Vegan Awareness (RIVA) and United Poultry Concerns