Report — From the November 2014 issue

Cage Wars

A visit to the egg farm

( 2 of 10 )

Since 2008, when California voters passed Proposition 2 — which requires that hens be able to “lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs and turn around freely” — the question of where and how to keep the approximately 295 million layer hens that are alive in the United States at any given time has led to big, expensive political and legal battles around the country. Both egg farmers and animal advocates will tell you stories of the creative legal maneuvers, the spook-level secrecy, the unlikely alliances, and the eleventh-hour vote reversals — tales of heroism and defeat that I never would have associated with the cardboard cartons at the grocery.*

* The United Egg Producers describes the relationship between themselves and the Humane Society as having become more cooperative in recent years, although a formal agreement between them ended in February.

The industry isn’t hiding that its hens are kept in cages, but they aren’t advertising it either. On egg cartons and in ads you see old-fashioned barns and fluffy chickens, not cages. The farms themselves are often far off highways, behind rows of trees or barbed wire, some of the farms monitored by security trucks or cameras. If you search online you can find smiling farmers standing between aisles of battery cages while a hundred thousand hens cluck around them. The farmers’ relaxed postures urge you to feel calm and undisturbed about all those hens, that this is normal, natural. And maybe the hens do look all right to us. Indeed it’s hard to say what an “unhappy” hen would look like.

We have conflicting notions about farm animals. This is due in part to the gulf that has widened between the farmer and the public as we have less and less access to the animals. Before World War I, the majority of eggs came from people keeping a few chickens in their backyards in the suburbs. Today, barns of 150,000 hens are run by 1.5 men on average (one full-time worker in a single barn, another split between two barns), who are more mechanics than farmers. In 1976 there were 10,000 egg producers in the United States; in 2014 only 177 egg producers represented 99 percent of all layer hens in the country. But large-scale production has dramatically risen: in 1994, 63 billion eggs were produced in the United States; by 2013 that number was 82 billion. Meanwhile, one third of the eggs we consume have become invisible, finding their way into our processed foods — mayonnaise and baked goods and sauces — so that we don’t notice we’re eating them. Yet our collective public image of an egg farm continues to include hens sitting on their eggs in nests, hens trotting around a barnyard, hens standing against a backdrop of grass and trees.

Many egg farmers, such as Knecht, believe they are treating the hens well, but they still sense they have something to hide: big agriculture, especially the egg industry, is running against the tide of changing public values. As the many current conversations about animal use and sentience attest, we are re-evaluating our relationship to animals. Our views are shifting and our circle of empathy is widening, yet the scale on which we are consuming eggs is immense and still growing, and there is no other way to satisfy the demand. This seemingly minor debate about cages is symptomatic of a much deeper — and growing — incompatibility between our beliefs and our consumer desires. The questions, then, may be reflective of the times: What is it like for a hen to live in a cage? And, perhaps more important:

Does it matter?

is the author, most recently, of the memoir Revolution. She teaches at the University of Texas at Austin.

More from Deb Olin Unferth:

Forum From the August 2013 issue

Neighbors

Readings From the January 2011 issue

Radical will

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