By Brett Barth, HoneyColony Original
Does animal cruelty make economic sense? Public opinion says “no.” In fact, polling shows humane farming standards are more important to consumers than organic labeling or buying local. When Proposition Two, a California measure to enforce kinder caging of egg-producing chickens, was introduced in 2008, it passed with the most votes of any initiative in state history. Prop 2 regulations won’t go into effect until 2015, but JW West, an egg producer in Modesto, California, has responded proactively to consumer interest in animal welfare by investing $7 million in enlarged cages. The result, they say, is better egg production from healthier hens.
Many animal activists, however, feel Prop. 2 doesn’t go nearly far enough—a caged animal is still caged after all. This is true, but given that the pending Federal Farm Bill has an amendment that undercuts animal welfare, the environment, and food safety standards everywhere (even the modest aims of Prop 2), it’s time to rally for Prop 2’s protection.
Introduced by Steve King, a congressman from Iowa, the “King Amendment” calls on federal lawmakers to override individual state standards in sanitary food production and humane farming in the name of interstate commerce. In other words, states without animal cruelty or agricultural regulations would be allowed to sell their products where they are otherwise banned. Currently, Iowa factory farm eggs aren’t permitted in the Golden State (or nine other states) because the method of production isn’t up to California’s voter-approved standards. But the King Amendment would invalidate protections like Prop 2 along with 150 other state statutes that benefit everything from farm animals to fruit crops to fish life. Even bees are at risk.
And so are we. It’s worth noting that Rep. King’s home state was ground zero in the salmonella outbreak of 2010 that sickened hundreds nationwide.
The King Amendment is astonishingly backward. In light of growing public demand for ethical farming and healthier food (even at increased prices), an amendment to the Farm Bill should be promoting safe, progressive farming and not relaxation of slaughterhouse rules. Not that Washington is known for being on-trend. Currently, there are no federal laws in the United States regulating the treatment of “food animals” while they’re on the farm. None.
A recent failure demonstrates how difficult it is to reach consensus and enact one. When Senator Dianne Feinstein (D, CA) introduced a recent bipartisan bill to establish a national standard for the humane treatment of egg-laying hens and the labeling of eggs, it was endorsed by both the United Egg Producers and the Humane Society (a rare feat). Still, it failed to pass the Senate.
The Feinstein Egg Bill was far from perfect. Animal rights groups feared it cemented a federal standard that wasn’t protective enough. Industrial farming argued it wouldn’t improve the quality of eggs but would only make them more expensive. It’s history now, but the Feinstein Bill does serve to demonstrate that in a free-market economy it isn’t government or big business that will put clean agriculture ahead of profits—that power is with the consumer.
The easiest way to influence—and institute—humane farming is to first understand what you’re buying. The Egg Products Inspection Act (Senator Feinstein’s defeated bill) mandated four common labels on egg cartons. Here’s a breakdown on what the categories mean:
Eggs From Caged Hens
Confined animal feeding operations, or CAFO’s, produce the vast majority of commercially available eggs. Efforts like Prop 2 in California to improve hen housing from the brutally small battery cages (now banned in Europe) to larger systems that allow birds to stretch and sit are well-intentioned, but at best, a caged hen is still confined to a space about the size of the screen on your laptop. This isn’t just a matter of discomfort; it means chickens are chronically unhealthy. Caged hens develop body deformities, organ swelling, mold toxins—and on and on. Animal rights activists strongly oppose any and all caging.
Eggs From Enriched Systems
“Enriched” is a lovely word, and egg producers boast that these bigger, better “enriched” colony systems offer chicken perches and sectioned areas for laying, scratching, and dustbathing. But this label may be slapped on any slight improvement in housing standards. This might mean each bird gets extra space no greater than the size of a cereal box.
It’s still a cage. Wings are worthless, and legs built for walking and running can’t do anything either. Furthermore, “enrichment” comes with its own perils. A dustbath in a pen with a dozen other birds, for example, may increase the spread of airborne toxins.
This is the fastest-rising sector in egg manufacturing. Mighty food manufacturers like Aramark and Unilever have pledged to switch to cage-free eggs in products ranging from batter mix to mayonnaise. While some animal advocates applaud this transition, others maintain cage-free egg farming is still cruel and exploitative. This is because there is no legal definition of “cage-free.” The term suggests a free bird running, well, free, but cage-free hens are typically confined to overpopulated barns with no fresh air or sunlight. Fattened by GMO feed and antibiotics, cage-free hens cost more to farm, but their eggs aren’t more nutritious.
True free-range eggs are from hens that forage freely outdoors for a natural diet of seeds, green plants, bugs, and worms. You can trust a truly free-range egg by the shade of its yolk. Caged hen yolks are pale yellow. Naturally fed hen yolks are bright orange.
This is important because like “cage-free” the definition of “free-range” is slippery. Roaming the great outdoors may not mean anything more than a cigarette break in an area as pastoral as a parking lot and a diet no less synthetic than before.
Stephen Colbert On Steve King On Chicken Eggs
In the end, shopping for food that is safe to eat and farmed humanely requires a lot of blind trust. Too much. And this is why legislation that further undermines consumer protections is so dangerous. Help stop the King Amendment before it goes before a senate vote in September by signing the petition here. The Organic Consumers Association has also launched a national petition, asking people to tell their representatives that if they pass a Farm Bill with the King Amendment, or other similar riders or amendments, their constituents will vote (or throw) them out of office.
Brett Barth is a cultural reporter who has covered everything from large-scale environmental disasters in the Gulf Coast to small inspirations like “Precycling” (that’s doing recycling one better by eliminating packaging altogether). He’s currently at work on a novel involving the use of land art to protect wildlife. He lives in Venice, California and in his spare time he makes mixed attempts to repurpose things.