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Why Caged Eggs Are the New Bovine Growth Hormone

Responding to a predictably horrifying Humane Society (HSUS) undercover investigation, Cal-Maine, the country's largest egg company, attempted to reassure the egg-buying public by noting that its eggs are produced in accordance with the industry's animal care guidelines. Unfortunately this defense does little to help Cal-Maine and only serves to expose those guidelines as completely useless.

During a 28-day stint working at a Cal-Maine facility in Waelder, Texas, a HSUS investigator recorded a variety of stomach-turning infractions including, but not limited to:

  • Birds in cages with rotting corpses of other birds
  • Dead hens that had been trapped under the trough feeders of their cages and had died with their heads on the egg conveyor belts, exposing passing eggs to the decaying bird
  • Birds trapped by their wings, necks and legs in the thin, rusty wires of the battery cages
  • Birds suffering from bloody uterine prolapses, caused by too much egg-laying, being stepped on by other hens in the crowded cages
  • Hens in the bottom two tiers of the cages covered in feces from birds in cages above them
As luck would have it, all of these animal welfare horrors would technically be allowed under the United Egg Producers' Animal Husbandry Guidelines. Amazingly, these rules are silent on whether dead birds should be hanging out in cages next to living ones and whether it's OK for a hen's wings to be trapped in wires. The guidelines also make no mention of birds covered in feces and they certainly don't delve into uterine prolapses.

What the rules do say is that each caged egg-laying hen must have 67 to 86 square inches of room, a criteria Cal-Maine's Texas operation meets with what HSUS estimated was 67 square inches. This is less than a sheet of 8x11 paper and, based on the images in the HSUS video, not nearly enough room for the birds to move, spread their wings or lead even slightly happy lives. For these reasons, HSUS condemns the UEP guidelines, saying they "permit routine cruel and inhumane factory farm practices."

And while HSUS is a strident animal rights group that would like to see all Americans go vegetarian, it's hard to disagree with them. Instead of aggressively defending the caging of hens, UEP and its egg producer members should start realizing that caged eggs are becoming the new bovine growth hormone. Once used pervasively throughout the dairy industry, Monsanto's (MST) dairy hormone became a victim of consumer concern and retailer revolt. It's now a has-been product that Monsanto unloaded to Eli Lilly (LLY), and 2007 stats show it's used on just 17% of cows, though current figures are probably closer to 13%.

The same trend is happening with caged eggs. Michigan and California have passed laws banning cages for laying hens. All of Walmart's (WMT) Great Value eggs are cage-free, as are the store brands at Costco (COST), Trader Joe's and Whole Foods (WFMI). And Ben & Jerry's (UN), Burger King, Denny's (DENN), Subway, Wendy's (WEN) and Hellmann's mayonnaise are shifting to cage-free eggs.

The UEP says that 95% of eggs produced in the U.S. are from caged systems, but with all those big players changing course, it's hard to see how that's anything but a fading rear view image.

Image from HSUS