Are "cage free" chickens really better?

November 21, 2003

Dear Cecil:

I am far from being the world's biggest sucker when it comes to advertising gimmicks, but I find myself succumbing to the legend "cage free" on packages of eggs. These eggs cost at least a buck more per dozen than regular eggs. I tell myself that cage-free chickens are probably no better off than their sisters kept in cages (probably they're just packed tighter into larger pens), but part of my brain says, "for a buck, you can always hope." It's really not the extra money that bothers me; it's the nagging suspicion that I'm falling victim to some marketing wonk's master plan. Help me, Cecil. Are cage-free chickens happier chickens?

A trip to the grocery store used to be a trip to the grocery store. Now it's a minefield of moral dilemmas. In re chickens, a blogger named Joseph Haines has framed the question thusly: All chickens, including laying hens, eventually get the ax. Which of the following do you want on your plate?

(1) A caged chicken who, after a life of misery, hears the blade whistling down and thinks: Free at last, or

(2) A cage-free chicken whose final thought, after an existence of ease and comfort, is: Ooh, bummer.

You see the problem. Even in the case of egg-producing chickens, in the final analysis we're talking about eating the flesh of our fellow creatures--and before we kill them we like to breakfast on their potential progeny. We don't really get off the hook, ethically speaking, by being nice to our victims.

But you like eggs. You're willing to settle if they're produced with a minimum of suffering. (For simplicity, we'll confine this discussion to ethical considerations--I haven't seen any persuasive evidence that eggs laid by uncaged chickens are healthier or tastier on average than the other kind.) Labeling terminology isn't much help. A rundown:

  • Cage free. No legal meaning, but some egg farmers think the term is less misleading than "free range" (see below), which suggests happy hens pecking for grubs in the barnyard. If the barnyard is in Minnesota and it's January, that ain't gonna happen.
  • Free range, free roaming. Here's the U.S. Department of Agriculture definition of these terms in its entirety: "Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside." In other words, there has to be a door, and it has to be open at least part of the time. The chickens don't necessarily have to take advantage, and they often don't. UK researchers studying commercial poultry farms say only 15 percent of chickens who have the opportunity ever leave the henhouse. The secret, they say, is to plant shade trees in the barnyard, under which the chickens can shelter. (Supposedly this reminds them of their ancestral forests. Whatever.) Others say, let's not make this too complicated--if you want the chickens to go outside the henhouse, put their food outside the henhouse. Not that "outside" is necessarily any Garden of Eden. In January 2003 Consumer Reports noted, "When we visited one free-range chicken farm a few years ago, we found a penned, 10x30-foot patch of dirt topped with chicken manure and grass." The USDA hasn't established criteria for the size of the "range" or the amount of space per bird, so things can get nearly as crowded outside as inside. Free-range chickens are typically debeaked, just like the caged kind, and the males are killed as chicks, since they don't lay eggs.
  • Free farmed. This term, which has been trademarked by the American Humane Association, means that a farm complies with AHA standards to ensure that its animals are free of hunger, unnecessary fear and pain, etc. Earning the "free farmed" label involves an initial inspection and annual recertification. It's the most rigorous program I've heard of, but unless you visit the farms yourself you're still basically taking things on faith.

That brings me to my main point. Whatever else may be said for the organic farming movement, it has saved a lot of small producers who otherwise would've been forced to the wall by big commercial operations and their economies of scale. The more technologically savvy mom-and-pop outfits have Web sites complete with photos of happy chickens frolicking in the sunshine. Sure, nothing prevents these folks from lying. Nothing prevents your mom from lying either. The fact is that the Internet enables consumers to have a more direct relationship with the producers of their morning eggs than they've had at any time since grandpa left the farm. If you're all that concerned about chicken welfare--and if you want more than the assurances on the egg carton to go on--you might as well take advantage.

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