As I live in Seattle, many of my peers and neighbors keep chickens. There’s even a group near my house that makes coops for people, complete with perches and different types of mini-habitats. As I don’t have room for a coop in my scrap of a yard, I’m one of those who goes to Whole Foods and buys the best local/organic/etc eggs I can buy. So I wasn’t quite sure what I was signing myself up for when I agreed to be shipped to New York City for the United Egg Producers’ (UEP) Animal Welfare Conference in late July.
The conference was small, under 15 people. I was one of two media attendees present, the other person from an egg farming magazine, so I found it interesting to be selected to cover this highly niche event. The rest of the group ranged from an undergrad student in culinary science to quality assurance staff for some large chain restaurants and fast food locations.
After breakfast, the talks began. It started with Mark Oldenkamp, farmer at Valley Fresh Foods in Oregon, giving an overview of current large scale egg production practices and the state of the UEP, which represents nearly 90% of the US egg farmers. Apparently we have less than 200 major egg producers in the US right now, with 253 million laying hens. The living conditions vary considerably, from traditional, cramped cages, to huge cage-free areas.
Then talks ranged from a discussion of foodborne illness in eggs, particularly Salmonella, to the scientific committee in charge of the UEP guidelines. I was really impressed by the breadth of knowledge in their committee team, from veterinarians to an ethics professor. I’m currently reading through their published journal article on poultry health, and it’s a dense read, a synthesis on the state of chicken care.
The main point of this conference was to support their egg bill, which will require at a federal level that cage-based farmers use enriched colony cages. Already supported by the Humane Society, this will more than double the minimum space requirements for caged chickens, and allow for nesting space, perches, and habitat enrichment. It would also require standard labeling on egg cartons in stores, so you can tell what conditions the chickens are in, such as “eggs from caged hens,” “eggs from hens in enriched cages,” “eggs from cage‐free hens” and “eggs from free‐range hens,” allowing consumers to make more informed decisions.
You should care and support this bill because it’s a huge step forward in chicken health. Not everyone has access to friends who raise a hen or two, or they just want the cheapest eggs. The plan with this bill is to not significantly raise the cost of a dozen eggs – they’re planning for a less than a penny an egg price increase. As cage-free standards aren’t well regulated, every step helps, and it will mean that more than people in Seattle or Portland get happy hens. Because these chickens deserve better, and we deserve better eggs for our breakfasts.
Photography source: United Egg Producers