Friday, April 28, 2017

Something About Eggs

Critical thinking and economic understanding lead to some interesting questions and answers on a wide variety of subjects.  This time it’s chickens and eggs.

My curiosity was aroused by a report about one company reconfiguring their operation to offer cage-free eggs.  With consumer demand for cage-free eggs at an all-time high, many fast-food chains and grocery stores are moving to completely cage-free in the next few years. “That means egg producers are under pressure now more than ever to go from cage to cage-free.”

In response to that pressure, they asked a contractor to build stronger cages and “design a [new] building around the cages and just wrap the cages with two inch insulated metal panels and completely eliminate the [existing] building.”  This seemed somewhat confusing as they were still talking about buildings and cages, but the new design would give the hens more options to “perch, run, nest and fly.”  A conveyor belt will move about a million eggs a day from the new buildings to an adjacent grading facility.  Overall it seemed like a small but costly change.

Research into the once-simple subject of chicken eggs shows that today’s choices include standard, cage-free, organic or free range. What are the advantages if any?

WebMD gives some information about the health benefits.  “'Those terms (organic, free-range, and cage free) have nothing to do with contamination. That does not assure eggs will be salmonella-free,' says Mike Doyle, PhD, director of the University of Georgia’s Center for Food Safety.”

The Food Safety News reinforced this information from a legal standpoint.  There’s no food safety argument to be made for cage-free eggs versus those from chickens in other types of housing, according to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. Nor are cage-free eggs more nutritious.”

WebMD adds organic eggs are from hens “that may be kept in any kind of caging system, but generally are cage free. They eat an organic feed and don’t receive vaccines or antibiotics.” They must have access to the outdoors, but it may be just a porch or patio.

Since there is no health benefit, then it’s all about the chickens.  Some animal advocates argue that it’s not humane to keep the hens caged up with little leg- or wing-room.  We should care enough about them to afford them a more pleasant life.  But a summary of studies from the Iowa Farm Bureau explains “the hen mortality rate in…cage-free systems was higher than in conventional production because of the ‘pecking order’ in flocks.”  The bigger ones often peck to death the smaller, weaker ones.  Likewise they “tend to have more breastbone injuries from flying inside a barn.”  Air quality is often not as good due to the chickens scratching and stirring up dust.

So maybe the simplistic view of happier chickens is not a valid justification.  Despite that, another site called The Spruce takes the same stance: “At the very least, getting cage-free eggs means you've avoided supporting the worst of the egg industry's all too common practices” of keeping hens in overly cramped quarters.  Again, it sounds good and caring in the abstract, but ignores those real world issues pointed out above. 

All Pet News goes even further, criticizing some cage-free operations for meeting only minimum standards.  They may still keep hens confined for part of the day.  They ask, “How can I eat without feeling guilty?”  This gets to the heart of the matter.

It is becoming more common today for advertisers to coerced shoppers into paying more for food with pseudo-scientific guilt trips about feeding only the best to your family.  Now the animal-rights advocates pile on with concerns for the chickens’ lifestyle.  And each of these adds cost to our grocery bill.  Again from the Food Safety News:  To meet all the increased demand for cage-free eggs such changes are projected to create, producers will have to invest $9 to $10 billion to switch to cage-free housing, according to some industry estimates. Cage-free eggs currently cost $1 to $2 more per dozen than eggs from hens kept in battery cages.”  That is a cost to everyone, not just to the people pushing for the change; and as always the poor will be the ones most affected – that’s poor people not poor hens.

In an ideal world, we should each be able to make our own choice about eggs: standard, cage free, etc.  That should be the case for all food.  Unfortunately, when a single-minded, vocal minority begins the emotion-charged campaigns using fear, guilt and compassion to manipulate a naïve public, producers, retailers, restaurants and advertisers are forced to respond to the pressure of shifting consumer demand.  (Remember the baseless “pink slime” fuss a few years ago?)  Then our choices are limited, and everyone is forced to pay more.

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