Cage free hens – safer for the food supply or just plain nicer?

You can get your eggs from chickens crammed into cages, or chickens who hang out all day in a run. Or who roost in a tree.

The Washington Post has a story today about the egg industry’s alarm at the movement to end caged hens. Proponents of caged-free hens say that it’s not only less cruel for the birds but more sanitary.

It’s a change that’s become more popular after the recent egg recall. The article says, “The 550 million eggs recalled in connection with the salmonella contamination came from hens housed in industrial-style ‘battery cages,’ in which birds are crammed against one another in a long battery of wire enclosures.”

But according to the article, egg producers say “there is no difference in safety between eggs produced by caged or free-range hens.”

An egg can become infected with salmonella in two ways. First, the hen can have the bacteria and contaminate the egg before it’s laid. Or an egg can become contaminated by fecal matter after it’s laid, entering the egg via a crack in the shell.

An egg is designed, though, to try and keep that bacteria out as much as possible. (Don’t you love how God anticipated this kind of stuff?) The shell acts as the first barrier against contamination; then there’s a thin membrane protecting the egg white; even if the bacteria gets in there, it will likely die. If the bacteria makes it to the protein-rich yolk and temperatures are warm, that’s where the bacteria can flourish.  If you pay attention and don’t use eggs that are cracked or have thin shells, and wash your hands while preparing food to avoid cross contamination, you should avoid salmonella fia egg handling.

But hens packed into crates like sardines creates an unsanitary environment that leads to sick chickens which leads to sick eggs.

Apparently the U.S. industry’s top lobbying group, United Egg Producers, says that going to cage-free hens would increase the cost of a dozen of eggs, and besides, they claim, there is no difference in safety between eggs produced by caged or free-range hens.

I don’t necessarily agree with that – common sense would tell you that healthy hens lay healthy eggs. But even if their assertion were true, isn’t it just a better business practice to treat what are essentially your employees with respect? I’m not getting all anthropomorphic on you, I promise. But in the whole scheme of egg production, it’s pretty much the hens doing all the work. The way they’re treated affects the product they produce.

If happy cows make happy milk, then happy hens lay healthy eggs.

And as for the added cost? The estimated increase would be about 25 cents per dozen. I think the safety of our food and the health and humane treatment of the hens is worth a quarter.

Or, if you’re like me, you could just build a coop and get a few hens. Which – when you take into account the cost of the coop, feed, and vet bills – actually increases the cost of your eggs to, oh, about $6 a dozen. But darn, they’re a lot more fun than eggs from the store.

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2 responses to “Cage free hens – safer for the food supply or just plain nicer?

  1. You’re absolutely right: The United Egg Producers shouldn’t be trusted:

    http://www.humanesociety.org/uep

    And of course, the science is clear that caging hens increases salmonella risk:

    http://www.humanesociety.org/salmonella

  2. Silly goose. Never trust anything that has to do with food and the government.

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