Spring-Summer 2012 Poultry Press NEXT

The Screaming Hen by Sue Coe

In “Agreement Raises Red Flags,” we look at the effort to ban battery cages for egg-laying hens in Europe and the United States. In January, a bill was introduced to the U.S. Congress called the Egg Products Inspection Act of 2012 (HB 3798). It advocates a federal law that would allow battery cages to continue in the form of “enriched” cages. If enacted in 2030, the federal law will preempt state efforts to ban all cages, critics say. For more information about HB 3798, see www.RottenEggBill.org, a website created by the Humane Farming Association.

the scream edvard munch
The Scream by Edvard Munch

Agreement Raises Flags for Egg-Laying Hens:
A Chicken Activist’s Perspective on the “New Deal”

By Karen Davis, PhD, President of United Poultry Concerns

“What is that gun firing for?” said Boxer.
“To celebrate our victory!” cried Squealer.
“What victory?” said Boxer.

From Animal Farm by George Orwell

The January/February 2012 edition of Animal People included a full-page ad headlined “It’s Time to Ban Barren Battery Cages Nationwide,” urging readers to ask Congress to support the Egg Products Inspection Act Amendments of 2012. The ad told us that “All the groups that have been leading the fight to ban battery cages – such as those listed below – actively support this legislation, because it’s the best opportunity to help the largest number of farm animals.”

The first part of this statement is false, and the second part begs the question, since whether the proposed legislation is the best we can do for egg-laying hens is at the heart of the current debate over the shift in the animal protection movement from trumpet calls to “ban cages for egg-laying hens” to “ban barren cages for egg-laying hens.”

To begin with, not all groups that have been leading the fight to ban battery cages actively support the proposed legislation. There is a mixture of sharp opposition and apprehensive ambivalence among us. Secondly, some groups so credited haven’t led the fight to ban battery cages at all. Some have done little or nothing of note.

As George Orwell famously observed in his writings about the politics of language, rewriting history is a commonplace strategy used by politicians and powerbrokers to get people to go along with shifting agendas. People can forget the facts of even the most recent past.

For the record, then, I must recall that United Poultry Concerns put chickens on the map of U.S. animal advocacy back when we were being told by some activist leaders, in the late eighties and early nineties, that “nobody would ever care about chickens.” We took the challenge and proved otherwise.

In the first edition of my book Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs: An Inside Look at the Modern Poultry Industry (1996) I concluded: “The battle to liberate hens from battery cages has begun and it includes all of us. Wherever we are, we are morally obligated to end the oppression. Battery cages should be banned in the United States and throughout the world. Until they have been discontinued, our species stands condemned of a criminal relationship with the living world. Consumers should boycott battery eggs and discover the variety of egg-free alternatives.”

“Enriched” cages in Europe.

In the early 1990s, the distinction between barren battery cages and so-called enriched cages was emerging in Europe, as a result of initiatives by Chickens’ Lib and Compassion in World Farming toward trying to ban battery cages. A 1992 report by the European Economic Commission’s Scientific Veterinary Committee concluded that the existing battery cage system “does not provide an adequate environment or meet the behavioural needs of laying hens.”

However, the Commission did not propose a ban on battery cages, just modifications. It proposed that beginning in 1995, each new cage should provide at least 800 square centimeters (120 square inches) of wire floor space per hen, at least 60 centimeters (24 square inches) of cage height over 65 percent of the cage area; claw-shortening devices consisting of strips of abrasive foot-scratching tape added to the manure deflectors behind the feed troughs, as mandated in Sweden; perches; and fully openable cage fronts. All cages would have to comply with these standards by January 1, 2002.

In “A Cage is Still a Cage,” Compassion in World Farming lamented in the Spring 1993 issue of the CIWF magazine then called Agscene that if these standards became compulsory, egg-laying hens would continue to be condemned to life in a cage, with a little more wire to stand on, sit on, and be surrounded by.

This fear was prophetic. On June 17, 1999, the European Union announced Laying Hen Directive 1999/74/EC. The Directive banned the barren battery hen cage in Europe by 2012 by adopting the Swiss formulation of minimum conditions that could not be met by conventional cages. Compassion in World Farming hailed the Directive “a new era of humanity for hens.”

Until 2012, existing cage systems were required to be slightly improved by reducing the number of hens per cage, so that each hen had 86 square inches of living space, up from 70 square inches. In 2008, the European Commission reaffirmed its directive banning conventional cage systems in the EU, effective January 1, 2012.

“Major New Threat – The ‘Enriched’ Cage!”

This was the title of an alert published in the Winter 2002 issue of Compassion in World Farming’s renamed magazine, Farm Animal Voice . Pleased that the 1999 Hens Directive meant that the cruel system of conventional cages was on its way out, the editors worried that the EU directive “does not also ban the so-called ‘enriched’ cages.”

enriched cage ciwf
As compared with the conventional cage, the "enriched" cage offers no meaningful benefits to hens, said CIWF.
CIWF photo, 2002

They were “appalled at the prospect of ‘enriched’ cages being used,” at the behest of the farm lobby, pointing out that while the “enriched” cage would give each hen a tad more space the size of a postcard, along with a tiny perch, “nest” box, and bit of litter for pecking and scratching, these features “are so minimalist that hens are unable to perform many of their basic behaviours in any way that is meaningful for them.” Activists were urged to continue to seek a ban on all cages, including “enriched” cages.

In the Summer 2006 issue of CIWF’s Farm Animal Voice, Clare Druce, founder of Chickens’ Lib (later renamed Farm Animal Welfare Network), noted that among other defects of “enriched” cages, the teensy “dustbathing” scratch patch of a box of sand or wood shavings in each cage would likely increase the airborne debris in the caged environment, already densely polluted with toxic gases, floating feathers, skin dander, and pathogens. Increasing the load of airborne particles would exacerbate the respiratory infections and eye irritation from which caged hens already suffer.

Druce further noted that while laying hens do need nest boxes, “enriched” cages would make meaningful inspections of the hens – already next to impossible – even harder. She asked: “Will the nesting box be carefully inspected, daily? Will checks be made to see if a hen in there is in fact laying an egg, resting, escaping, or merely dying from cage layer fatigue?”

Based on copious investigative evidence of what actually goes on in caged-hen operations, the answer is No. Despite two decades of European campaigns to prevent “enriched” cages from being adopted as an “alternative” to the conventional, barren cage, the European Union law that went into effect on January 1, 2012 allows the use of “enriched” cages, just as the EU egg industry lobby wanted all along.

“Enriched” cages in the U.S.

jw west colony Feedstuffs photo, June 28, 2010

In 2010, a coalition of U.S. farm animal sanctuaries published a position statement, which I wrote, titled “Farmed Animal Sanctuaries Oppose ‘Enriched’ Cages for Laying Hens.” We explained that California’s Proposition 2 (the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act, supported by 8.2 million voters in the November 2008 election) did not necessarily ban cages in California. The new law, effective in 2015, required only that California’s egg-laying hens must have enough room to lie down, fully extend their legs and wings, and be able to turn around without bumping into other hens or enclosure walls.

However, most signatures-gatherers for Proposition 2 believed that this ballot measure, if enacted, would ban battery cages in California – not just “barren” cages but all cages. That was how the Humane Society of the United States framed the initiative, which also implied that each hen, acting simultaneously, must be able to extend her limbs fully without touching other hens or walls, whereas what was actually meant was that just one hen at a time must be able to do these things.

In June 2010, claiming compliance with Proposition 2, egg producer J.S. West & Co. opened the first “enriched” cage system for laying hens in the U.S., in Livingston, California. A celebratory photograph of an “enriched” cage load of hens being wheeled into their “colony barn” appeared on the front page of Feedstuffs, the weekly agribusiness publication, on June 28, 2010. Noting that more than 230 guests had attended the barn’s opening a week earlier, Feedstuffs reported that while American Humane Certified approved the system, in which each hen would supposedly have 116 square inches of living space, the Humane Society of the United States opposed it.

HSUS reacted with “astonishment” at the effrontery of J.S. West & Co. HSUS in a September 15, 2009 press release said that “Prop 2’s proponents have always been crystal clear that the measure requires cage-free hen housing,” and that United Egg Producers and HSUS had “agreed very explicitly that these so-called ‘furnished’ or ‘enriched’ cages would be prohibited if the measure passed.”

J.S. West’s 116 square inches of living space per hen prevented hens from being able to “fully extend their wings without touching other birds.” Performance of basic “normal behavior” requires a minimum of 1.5 square feet per bird, or 216 square inches, HSUS explained, and went on to accuse UEP of reneging on its assertion the day after the election that cages for laying hens “will certainly be outlawed.”

encirhced battery building
"Enriched" cage facility, NPR, Jan.26, 2012

Step forward two years.

Compassion in World Farming, which had long cried foul at the prospect of “enriched” cages for laying hens as opposed to a ban on all cages, on July 7, 2011 issued a statement welcoming an agreement trumpeted that day by HSUS and United Egg Producers, whereby the former foes would now work together for federal legislation to ban barren cages for egg-laying hens in the United States – but not caging itself.

Just two years earlier, on June 18, 2009, HSUS had blasted “Double-Talk by Egg Industry” for its “head-snapping turn-around” plot to amend California Assembly bill AB 1437, which sought to apply Proposition 2 standards to the sale of whole eggs from out-of-state as well as in-state sources, by adding language that would let California egg producers continue keeping hens in cages.

Seethed HSUS, “What’s even stranger about this post-election maneuver is that it contradicts just about everything the egg industry leaders said during the campaign.”

Yet now HSUS’s charge of UEP’s perfidy reads like a pun on George Orwell’s Animal Farm, where the leaders of revolutionary progress are constantly reversing themselves through backroom deals with former adversaries in a downward spiral that saps and befuddles the animal citizens of Manor Farm.

Writing to Feedstuffs on January 20, 2012, United Egg Producers president Gene Gregory defended the UEP alliance with HSUS. He said that a national standard through federal legislation, such as HR 3798, introduced three days later by U.S. Representative Kurt Schrader of Oregon, was the “only way” to ensure the industry’s future. He said it was the “only way” to avoid a “bleak future of overlapping, inconsistent, unworkable state-based animal welfare standards that will result from ballot initiatives that our industry cannot win even if – as we did in California in 2008 – we raise millions of dollars to try to educate the public.”

Follow the money.

Until 2011, the HSUS campaign for cage-free egg production had the U.S. egg industry scared. Fear of HSUS led UEP to “reach out to HSUS in March 2011,” Gregory told Feedstuffs. Would HSUS president Wayne Pacelle be receptive to “a transition to enriched colony cages as an option to ending our conflict?”

The rest is “history.” HSUS and UEP now both say that abandonment of cage-free ballot campaigns is the only solution. Both sides stress that their pact is a financial solution.

Under the new dispensation, battery cages, albeit “enriched” with new plastic furniture that will soon be filthy, will be enshrined. Once the U.S. egg industry invests $4 billion-plus dollars into converting to “enriched” cages with their zillions of “welfare” devices, the system will be in place. Ditto in the European Union.

In September 2011, Gene Gregory of UEP told Egg Industry magazine that cage-free egg production “is not economically sustainable” and “doesn’t improve the welfare of the animals.” Two years earlier, Wayne Pacelle of HSUS cited “the egg industry’s own economic analysis” to argue that cage-free eggs would add “less than a penny per egg . . . a modest cost,” while reiterating that “enriched” cages are inhumane.

Since then, HSUS has undergone an Orwellian transformation. In “How Two Bitter Adversaries Hatched A Plan To Change The Egg Industry,” broadcast by National Public Radio on February 10, 2012, Pacelle said he now sympathizes with “the daily struggles that a lot of farmers go through, economically.” Looking at photos of the former adversaries on Capitol Hill, I can’t help visualizing the ending to Orwell’s Animal Farm. The animals gaze stupefied at the Manor House. “They rushed back and looked through the window again.” Their leaders were frolicking with the enemy, toasting business deals! They try to tell one from the other, but “already it was impossible to say which was which.”

A new era for hens?

There is reason to worry about the future of America’s hens, who are said in a statement by HSUS and UEP to “give us” their eggs. No, we steal their eggs and torture the birds in ways I can’t describe for lack of space.

Even if the proposed federal law passes, the majority of hens will remain entombed in cages on factory farms. They will be locked into a federal law administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture which does not even enforce the 54-year-old “Humane Slaughter Act,” from which birds are excluded.

At most, brown hens, being slightly larger than the white hens, may within 18 years get a maximum of 144 square inches apiece, or one square foot per bird. Even UEP said that hens need a minimum of 1.5 square feet, or 216 square inches, to engage in minimal “normal behavior.”

Claims that the deal with UEP will mandate humane transport and “euthanasia” of spent, injured, or ill hens are unrealistic. In truth, they are lies. Partial beak amputation will continue. Killing newly hatched male chicks in egg production facilities by the millions will proceed as usual.

Given that no amount of legislation will ever create truly humane treatment of mass-produced hens or any other mass-produced animals, I urge people as passionately as I did in 1996 to forego eggs in favor of egg-free, vegan foods.
Karen Davis, PhD, President of United Poultry Concerns.


This article, slightly edited, appears in the March 2012 edition of ANIMAL PEOPLE, the leading independent newspaper providing original investigative coverage of animal protection worldwide. www.animalpeoplenews.org.

Spring-Summer 2012 Poultry Press NEXT