Do Bigger Chicken Cages Do More Harm Than Good?

California is following in the EU's footsteps by passing a new law requiring egg farmers to end cruel battery-farming conditions. But not all farmers are wild about the idea of converting their existing facilities.

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Jan 6 2015, 9:42pm

We've all heard about the horrors of the conventional, so-called "battery" cages where 90 percent of the eggs we eat are raised. Crammed into tiny wire enclosures that measure about 18 by 20 inches, the hens—which must be debeaked with a hot knife so that they won't mutilate their handful of pen-mates out of fear and anxiety—can't turn around, lift their wings, or avoid shitting and pissing all over themselves.

California, a nationwide leader in freethinking and humane ideals, has addressed the issue this year with the passing of a new law that requires egg farmers to increase the size of those cages, providing each chicken with more space to move. It's a goal that has been in the works since 2008, when California Proposition 2 created a new statute that prohibited "the confinement of farm animals in a manner that does not allow them to turn around freely, lie down, stand up, and fully extend their limbs." On January 1 of this year, that statute went into effect. And it doesn't just affect California egg farmers, but also farmers in states such as Iowa and Idaho that supply a good number of ova to the coast.

The new law is undoubtedly a victory for animal rights activists, who for years have railed against the status quo of egg farming in this country (the European Union, seemingly always ahead of the US when it comes to ethical farming, enacted similar continent-wide laws in January 2012). Yesterday, the Humane Society of the United States published a press release praising the passing of the new law (noting that celebrities including Moby and Kate Mara applauded Western chickens' newly enhanced digs, as well). But perhaps unsurprisingly, many hen farmers have balked at the new rules they're expected to adhere to: altering their hen cages will be pricey, and because the updated facilities will hold far fewer birds, farmers are also being forced to destroy thousands of hens—another factor that will, at least temporarily, slash hen farmers' profits.

Ken Klippen is a consultant for the National Coalition of Egg Farmers. His group, which represents a mix of factory and small family egg farms, opposes California's new legislation on the basis that it actually worsens—rather than improves—conditions both for hens and for the consumers that eat their eggs. We spoke with him to learn more about his issues with Proposition 2.

MUNCHIES: Let's cut right to the chase: Why are you so opposed to this new law which, at least in theory, sounds like it would be a great boon to egg-laying hens? Ken Klippen: I represent a lot of the smaller farmers, and they struggle with the fact that this is based on misinformation. This move for Prop 2 was cast as a humane welfare system; it is not. Prop 2 was promoted as a food safety regulation. And yet we're seeing in these new enriched colony cages that manure can actually accumulate on the new, enhanced nest boxes. The research from the Coalition has shown that the pathogenic bacteria are increased under that system, compared to the conventional system where the manure just drops beneath the cages to the floor below. So the idea is that the industry has evolved to this state where it's producing a safe and wholesome egg in conventional cages, and now it's reverting back to where the eggs are coming into contact with the manure.

Imagine the chicken that's lowest on that pecking order among 60 chickens, as opposed to six. So she's obviously going to be injured more, and more stressed.

This law is not going to increase the welfare of battery-raised chickens? No, it will not. And let me tell you why. The enhanced colony cage in California, even at 116 square inches per bird, you're increasing the number of birds in that one population of that cage. It could be upwards of 60 birds in a cage. Well, chickens naturally establish a pecking order. And so the conventional cages maybe have six to eight birds per cage. So that pecking order is not as stressful as it is in the greater population density of the enhanced colony cages. Imagine the chicken that's lowest on that pecking order among 60 chickens, as opposed to six. So she's obviously going to be injured more, and more stressed. Back in March, in an initial findings report, scientists from the Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply (CSES) noted that there were more leg and wing breakages from the chickens running into those new enhancements, like a nest box, when they're frightened—and chickens are easily frightened—and they actually break a leg, or break a wing. So there are two animal welfare components there that have not been presented to the consumers. They're not aware of them.

So you're basically saying that in spite of the image that we've been presented of these battery cages, that system works better than the one that has been newly mandated in California? The portrayals of chickens being abused are isolated incidences, not the norm. I had a television crew come to my office in Washington, DC, and show me pictures of cages. It was obvious that the chickens were in a situation that was unhealthy for them. I said, "Let's take this camera crew out on the street, and have you film people that are picking garbage out of garbage cans to eat. And then you put the headline that this is how people in Washington, DC eat." It's misinformation. You can always find isolated incidences. But we have to find a way to provide for the needs of a growing population. And the way we're doing it is based on the available science, and what we see as a way to produce a safe and wholesome egg.

We've seen a 35 percent increase on the price of eggs, because eggs are a commodity, and whenever there's anticipation of a shortage of a commodity, there's a huge rush to buy.

Let's talk logistics. How will hen cages have to be altered, and how will meeting the new requirements affect farmers? Each bird now has to have 116 square inches of space, and supporters of the law claim that this will provide a welfare component. And of course, we have argued that it's doing just the opposite.

Farms that are currently trying to alter their farms to meet the compliance for California are having to actually destroy many of their chickens. According the CSES report, conventional farms might have 193,000 chickens in their system, and under the enriched system that California is requiring, they would have to have only 46,000 chickens in that system. So the number of eggs coming out of that house are greatly reduced—you're only getting eggs from 46,000 chickens as opposed to 193,000 chickens, so there's a loss of income there.

In the Midwest, where they're having colder temperatures, farmers would have to add additional heat in order to keep the chickens warm at that lower density as opposed to the current densities for the conventional caged systems. So there's additional cost there, too. All this information stems from congressional research that was done on a national egg standard, and we saw prices of anywhere from $28 to $40 per chicken to convert to that kind of a system. So it's a significant cost, and only a handful of farmers can actually afford to make those kinds of adjustments. There's only 172 companies nationwide producing eggs commercially, but there's only about 75 that are more than one million chickens per farm that could conceivably make or afford those kind of changes. So it's gonna put additional pressures on the smaller family farmers.

California is the first to attempt something like this, and hopefully it'll be the last.

Is the new law going to affect egg prices? The prices have already increased over 100 percent in the last year, in anticipation of the law. In January 2014, the price of eggs in California was $1.34; in December, 12 months later, it was $2.77. We've seen a 35 percent increase in other states on the price of eggs, because eggs are a commodity, and whenever there's anticipation of a shortage of a commodity, there's a huge rush to buy. And so that puts additional pressure on the demand. So in answer to your question, yes, we will see an increase in price. We already have.

Is California the first state in the US to attempt this kind of legislation? And do you think other states will follow suit? California is the first to attempt something like this, and hopefully it'll be the last. I think that the animal activists will certainly attempt to get other states to follow. This is their pattern; they've gotten certain companies to revert to a cage free policy, meaning that they agree to buy eggs only from cage free chickens. They're thinking that they're providing a more welfare-enhanced atmosphere for the chickens, when just the opposite is taking place. So it's gonna be a battle. But we're gonna continue to try to get the word out, like we're doing right now, that's it's not more humane for the chickens, and it's not gonna improve the food safety aspects for the consumers.

Although you're opposed to this new law, in general do you support improving the conditions of egg laying hens? What kinds of changes do you think would work better for farmers and consumers? I'm all for having science provide us the means to meet the needs of people. We want to produce a safe and wholesome egg for the consumer today. And we have, over the last few decades, evolved to where we are right now. This law is reverting back to previous conditions.

You know, it's interesting that The Economist on January 3rd had an article that said that in the next 40 years, humans will need to produce more food than they did in the previous 10,000 years put together. We have to look at ways of providing food for large economies, and of course that means more intensive forms of agriculture, including animal agriculture. We wanna do what's safe and wholesome, and we wanna make sure that it's a humane system, and that's what the industry has gone to. But this law is reverting backwards.

Thanks for speaking with us, Ken.

Editor's note: After this piece ran, MUNCHIES was contacted by a representative from the Humane Society, who cited what he saw as several errors in Klippen's reporting. MUNCHIES plans to publish a rebuttal in the coming days.