If you’re the American egg industry, then the answer is clearly, the egg. In fact, they don’t give a hoot about the chickens and would do away with them altogether if they didn’t need them to produce the eggs. Stuffing them in battery cages where they can barely move (67 square inches), in filthy conditions that the Humane Society characterizes as “inherent cruelty.” That is the way that most of the eggs are currently being produced in this country.
In Europe, however, you get a different answer as of January 1st of this year. The European Union passed a law that requires all commercial eggs to be hatched by chickens kept in “free-range barns or enriched cages.” In other words, across the pond, the chicken comes first.
At the minimum, the new “enriched” cages will provide twice as much space per bird as those currently being used in the US, but because the cages are large enough to hold up to 90 birds, that means there is enough room for the hens to spread their wings, perch and walk around.
Not all of the EU countries are ready to allow this new regulation to rule the roost. Eleven countries have not yet signed on to the agreement. Some of Europe’s largest egg producers including Spain and Poland have not yet signed on, despite having 12 years to prepare for this. Other major players, including France, Italy, Greece and Belgium are also non-compliant. That means that eggs produced in those countries will be considered illegal. They will likely find their way into markets indirectly as ingredients in prepared food. It is estimated that free-range eggs cost 8% more to produce than those in battery cages. That seems like a small price to pay to avoid this kind of cruelty.
Two countries have their sunny sides up when it comes to egg production. In the UK the government has invested 400 million pounds into meeting the new standards. All producers are expected to comply. Those eggs raised in the enriched cages, rather than in a free-range environment will be referred to as “colony eggs.”
In Sweden, eggs have been exclusively cage-free for several years now. The new law will likely provide a booming export market for them, as there will be a void to fill until all countries become compliant.
Meanwhile, back home, a proposal by the Humane Society to the McDonalds’ Board of Directors, that they set a goal of 5% cage-free eggs, was rejected with a statement that they were awaiting “agreement in the global scientific community about how to balance the advantages and disadvantages of laying hen housing systems.” That sounds a lot like the oil companies waiting for more studies on global warming. Egg production has increased fourfold in this country since 1960, while the population rose by 56%. Sixty-five billion eggs are now produced each year in this country. That’s 231 per person, in case you’re wondering.
Already, most major grocery chains are providing free-range eggs, though the price in many cases is quite a bit higher. As consumers continue to make their preferences known, more and more producers will adapt these methods and we should expect to see prices coming down.
[Image credit: Michelle MacPhearson: Flickr Creative Commons]
RP Siegel, PE, is the President of Rain Mountain LLC. He is also the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water. Now available on Kindle.
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