In light of last October’s “Scrambled Eggs” report on the virtually meaningless labels found on supermarket eggs, one blogger has had an idea for how to create labels that actually mean something. Friend and blogger for the Oregon-based Ludeman’s, Elisabeth McCumber, shares her idea below. What do you think? Would it work?
Changes for Oregon chickens have been brewing in Salem this week.
On Wednesday the 25th, the Oregon Senate decided the chickens who lay our eggs should have bigger cages. The plan takes effect over the next 15 years, so even if today’s chickens have all kicked the bucket by then, at least their granddaughters or great granddaughters will enjoy a little more elbow room. (Here’s that story.)
Good news, right? Except that Oregon’s animal rights advocates still aren’t happy. But who’s surprised? When will they be satisfied? It’s a classic case of “give a mouse a cookie;” these people aren’t going to lay off until we’ve got every hen on a pasture.
This deserves a little critical analysis. An analogy might help.
Mr. Cratchit is, as everyone knows, in the employment of Ebenezer Scrooge. His situation is bleak. He’s not allowed the coal he needs to keep warm while he works. He doesn’t earn much. That means he can’t buy nutritious food for his family. That means Tiny Tim isn’t doing well. In fact, the boy’s going to die by next Christmas. For the purpose of this analogy, let’s imagine Bob’s situation extra bleak: he’s also chained to his desk.
After a harrowing visit from the Christmas spirits of past, present and future, Scrooge relents. He meets Cratchit at work one morning with a face to light the world at dawn, and says, magnanimously, he’s got news! Bob Cratchit will no longer be chained to his desk.
Still freezing. Still under-nourished. Still going to lose his son.
Till now, we’ve been talking just about Oregon chickens. But the situation is broader than that. Factory-farmed animal products – meat, milk, eggs – are everywhere, to such an extent that if you’re in a store looking at an animal product, you’re safe to assume it’s factory.
And no matter how big a bone the factory system throws to those advocates for animal welfare, it’s still going to fall short. No matter how big the cage gets, the fact is, the natural condition of a chicken is not a cage.
This “natural condition” thing is a pillar in the very definition of “humane,” according to Certified Humane, a label that puts in print what it means to treat farm animals in a kind and responsible way. The idea is that animals should be allowed to engage fully in their natural behaviors. Cows are evolved to graze. Pigs are made to root around. Chickens have wings, and they’re meant to flap them. A chicken in a cage can’t do that; nor can it dust-bathe, brood or do anything else chickens naturally do.
So expanding the confinement to a little less than 11×11 inches per bird kind of misses the point. Big time.
Hold on, you object. What are you proposing? That all these farms revamp their entire operation at a fundamental level? Can you even wrap your mind around how much that would cost? Do you have any idea how unfeasible that is?
Sure. That would never go down. Let’s not suggest anything of the kind. In fact, let’s not impose any change at all on egg operations; let them keep the cages sized as they are. Let Bob Cratchit remain chained to his desk.
Just change the packaging.
For every operation that keeps X number of chickens or more, require it to print a 1×1 inch photograph right there on the package, documenting the living conditions of its birds. Specifically, the living conditions of the majority of the hens (you can’t keep 10 chickens in an adjacent yard for photographic purposes), located where they spend the majority of their time (you can’t move your birds to a field, take a picture and move them back). It would also need to include a minimum number of birds in the shot – say, 50. (You can’t do a super close-up of one particularly healthy-looking bird.) Under the photograph, in fine print, the words: “Living conditions of hens at XYZ Corp.”
One small photograph. One immense impact. Were consumers to notice every carton came with a tiny picture of the birds who laid the eggs, they’d think about it. The information would surely impact their purchasing decisions. (And don’t we, as a nation, believe in informed choice?) They might make a change in their diet; they might seek out alternatives. If they went ahead and bought the eggs anyway, they might have a hard time answering their children’s questions about that picture on the box.
Because here’s the thing. The majority of us are pretty decent people. The majority of us don’t like the idea of searing off chickens’ beaks, stuffing them into wire cages and putting less fresh, less nutritious eggs on our table. Why else would the going packages show anachronistic, cartoon images of your quintessential family farm? Bright green grass, a girl cradling a hen, a comfortable red barn.
At the same time, we’re remarkably adept at telling ourselves the story we wish were true. We don’t think about the lives of battery hens as we watch our eggs travel down the conveyor belt to the cashier. Or, if we do, we tell ourselves, “Maybe these eggs didn’t come from that kind of place.” The truth is, though, they did. No matter what the package says – cage-free, free-range, whatever. Those meaningless monikers are there strictly for the purpose of giving people a story they’re more comfortable with, because goodness knows, if people were confronted with the truth, they would not participate.
In short, systemic change is the only answer. But let’s not go the murky road of government regulation, in which the ideal of humanely treated animals is negotiated down to a mere shadow of itself. Rather, let’s go the free market road: good old-fashioned, capitalistic competition, right? Tell the people the truth, and let them decide.
The people are going to pressure you, XYZ Corp. Because as much as you and Mr. Scrooge detest the implications, the people are rooting for Tiny Tim.
IN THE MEANTIME
Take action, dear reader. There’s a lot you can do right now, even short of a comprehensive, systemic reform in egg farming.
- Research your egg brand. If you can’t find evidence its hens are humanely kept, they’re not.
- Search localharvest.org for pastured eggs in your area, and consider buying from a small farm nearby.
- If you have a yard, consider keeping your own chickens. Visit backyardchickens.com to decide if a small flock is right for you.
- Look for the “Certified Humane” label. Visit certifiedhumane.org to learn what their standards are, who meet these and where you can find them on the shelf.
Educate yourself. Weigh what it means to you. Then, whatever your conclusions may be, act on them.
Elisabeth McCumber writes for Ludeman’s Farm & Garden Center in Beaverton, OR, a feed store with 40 acres of permaculture out in Buxton. She blogs about real food, permaculture and good ideas for gardeners. The store supplies backyard farmers with the usual – seed, feed, tools – plus raw milk, red wiggler worms, hatching eggs, eggs for the table, turkeys, ducks, geese and chickens.
(photo by mtsofan)