Which Came First:
the Cruelty or the Egg?

Which Came First: the Cruelty or the Egg?


By Erica Meier

"People should know the chickens are better off in

cages and why. They should know the chickens are

content and productive."-Henry Wentink, then vice

president of agribusiness giant Walt Montgomery



The egg industry has long attempted to ignore

allegations of cruelty to animals. But as a

growing number of consumers discover the

hard-boiled truth about modern egg

production-thanks in large part to several

undercover investigations by animal advocacy

organizations in recent years-the industry is

scrambling to keep its reputation from cracking.


While most people still conjure up images of Old

MacDonald's Farm when they think about where eggs

come from, the dismal reality is that behind

nearly every egg sold in grocery stores today is

a hen confined inside a wire battery cage so

small, she can't even spread her wings. She will

never build a nest, raise her young, scratch at

the earth, roost in a tree, or even set foot

outside. After her exhausted body becomes too

battered and weak to continue laying a profitable

number of eggs, she'll finally be plucked from

her cage-and her first breath of fresh air will

be on a truck bound for slaughter. That is, if

she doesn't die first or be killed at the factory



Egg-laying hens are subjected to some of the

worst abuses imaginable. They are arguably the

most intensively confined animals in agribusiness

today. A typical battery cage facility holds tens

of thousands of hens inside a single shed, and

each hen is afforded less living space than the

size of a sheet of paper. With virtually no laws

protecting them, these birds can be-and routinely

are-treated in ways that would warrant charges of

cruelty to animals in all 50 states if those same

abuses were inflicted upon cats or dogs.


In April and May 2001, Compassion Over Killing

conducted its first investigation inside an egg

factory farm in Cecilton, Maryland. Using still

and video cameras, the investigators made their

way through row upon row of battery cages stacked

four levels high, with each cage crammed with up

to eight birds, documenting the horrors

egg-laying hens are forced to endure on a daily

basis. The images reveal overcrowding, severe

feather loss, untreated illness and injuries,

birds immobilized in the wires of their cages,

and dead birds left in cages with live hens. What

the photos and video footage are unable to

capture is the stench of thousands of pounds of

excrement collecting in the manure pits below the

cages-a stench the birds cannot escape. The

Washington Post featured a detailed article about

this investigation, exposing thousands of

readers, perhaps for the first time, to the

inherent cruelties of battery cage egg production.


"Animal Care Certified"

To quell the rising tide of public concern for

egg-laying hens, the United Egg Producers (UEP),

an industry trade group representing more than 85

percent of egg producers, developed the "Animal

Care Certified" program, and, in 2002, a logo

bearing those words began appearing on egg

cartons nationwide. While polls show that the

"Animal Care Certified" seal speaks volumes to

consumers concerned about animal cruelty, the

guidelines themselves do little more than codify

what has long been the industry norm. In fact,

when the program was unveiled, the only

significant change for hens to be found was

regarding cage space: the guidelines call for 67

square inches of space per hen by 2008, up from

the standard 48 square inches. However, studies

show that hens need on average 72 square inches

just to stand and 291 square inches merely to

flap their wings.


Since the egg industry's creation of this

shameful public relations scam, COK investigators

have visited several facilities following these

voluntary guidelines and certified by the UEP.

With each investigation, we gathered ample

evidence of routine animal cruelty showing that

these egg factories are anything but humane.

Tragically, but not surprisingly, the conditions

for hens found inside these so-called "Animal

Care Certified" facilities are largely

indistinguishable from non-certified egg farms.

During COK's two week egg farm investigation in

2005, we documented appalling conditions in all

three of Maryland's largest egg factory farms-two

of which participate in the "Animal Care

Certified" program-demonstrating that animal

abuse is the industry norm, not the exception.


Undercover egg factory farm investigations

conducted by other animal advocacy organizations

across the country, including Ohio, Minnesota,

New York, Pennsylvania, and California, further

confirm that cruelty to animals is standard

business in commercial egg production, regardless

of industry certification status.


The damning media reports garnered by these types

of exposés allowed millions of consumers to learn

about the egg industry's abusive practices, and,

more importantly, laid the foundation that made

2005 a landmark year for the anti-battery cage

effort in the U.S.


Advocacy Works!

Most notably, on September 30, 2005, after

reviewing the matter that was first brought to

its attention by COK two years earlier, the

Federal Trade Commission announced that the egg

industry's misleading "Animal Care Certified"

logo will be gone from store shelves within

months. A new logo reading "United Egg Producers

Certified" will take its place-a label that will

no longer mislead consumers with a false message

of humane animal care. This is an important

victory for both consumers and egg-laying hens,

and sets a precedent that consumer deception

regarding animal cruelty will not be tolerated.


The anti-battery cage effort made further gains

with the work of the Humane Society of the U.S.

(HSUS). In early 2005, Wild Oats Natural

Marketplace joined Whole Foods Market, two of the

nation's top natural foods retailers, and adopted

a policy of only stocking its store shelves with

cage-free eggs. Soon, other chains, food

distributors, and universities signed onto HSUS's

No Battery Eggs campaign. Earth Fare and Jimbo's,

two regional grocery chains, discontinued all

sales of battery eggs; national food service

provider Bon Appétit implemented a cage-free

policy for eight million shell eggs served

annually; dozens of college campuses have pledged

to discontinue or dramatically reduce their use

of battery eggs; and Trader Joe's, after a

four-month campaign led by HSUS, agreed to

convert its own brand of eggs to cage-free.


Every step taken to remove support from battery

cage egg production is a step in the right

direction for egg-laying hens. Experts agree that

battery cages deprive hens of their most basic

needs, and even with the industry's new

guidelines for cage space, these birds remain one

of the most intensively confined of all farmed

animals in the U.S. Lesley Rogers, author of The

Development of Brain and Behaviour in the

Chicken, writes of battery cages: "In no way can

these living conditions meet the demands of a

complex nervous system designed to form a

multitude of memories and make complex decisions."


Welfare concerns have already prompted several

European countries, including Sweden, Austria and

Germany, to phase out the use of battery cages

altogether, and the entire European Union has

voted to phase out battery cages by 2012.


While no such legislative advancements for

egg-laying hens have yet been made in the U.S.,

polls show that most Americans support laws that

protect farmed animals and that many are willing

to pay higher prices for what they perceive to be

more humane products. These sentiments are echoed

in recent victories on the state level. In

Florida, voters passed a ballot initiative in

2002 to ban the use of gestation crates for

pregnant pigs, and, in 2004, California Governor

Schwarzenegger signed a bill into law banning the

force-feeding of ducks and geese for foie gras.

Legislation to ban particular factory farming

practices is now pending in several other states,

including Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey and



According to a recent report in Feedstuffs, a

trade industry publication, the U.S. egg industry

is considered the number two animal activist

target (behind the Australian wool industry), and

industry officials are clearly feeling the heat.

In that same issue of Feedstuffs, Gene Gregory,

senior vice president of the United Egg

Producers, stated, "The time has come to defend

conventional cage production systems."


The egg industry continues to defend the

indefensible. Indeed, Ken Klippen, then

spokesperson for the United Egg Producers, stated

in a 2004 television interview, "The research

showed it was humane to have chickens in cages.

In fact, they would prefer to be in cages."

However, no published studies can be found

supporting this claim. According to Dr. Klaus

Vestergaard of the Royal Veterinary and

Agricultural University in Denmark, "The

scientific results that have been accumulating

over the last 12 years have supported the view

that the battery hen suffers unnecessarily and

that the causes are inherent in the battery cage



The U.S. anti-battery cage effort is gaining

strength with every exposure of the reality of

life on egg factory farms. And with both science

and public opinion clearly favoring the hens, the

time is ripe for voters and lawmakers to take a

stand against animal cruelty by banning battery


- Erica Meier is the Executive Director of

Compassion Over Killing, a Washington, DC-based

animal advocacy group. Check out their

eye-opening documentary, 45 Days: The Life and

Death of a Broiler Chicken. To learn more or get

involved with COK's campaign to air 45 Days in

all 50 states, contact www.cok.net or (301)