Over easy or whisked into omelets, eggs are a breakfast staple. But the hens that lay the eggs get little appreciation for their efforts. Visit 95 percent of the egg operations in the U.S. today, and you'll find as many as a quarter million hens crammed into batteries of cages stacked 10 rows high--spaces so tight they can't even flap their wings.
"The modern hen lays an egg on around 320 days each year, and during the two hours surrounding that process, she is severely frustrated," says Ian Duncan, an expert on laying hens and emeritus professor in the department of animal and poultry science at the University of Guelph, Canada. "That seems unacceptable to me."
Duncan notes that without perches, the chickens do not sleep well at night, and because they cannot get exercise, they develop weak bones akin to osteoporosis. That said, a growing minority--five percent of producers--are changing chickens' lives for the better. "The trend seems to be getting the birds onto the floor of the barns and even outside," Duncan says.
"This new ethic is conservative, not radical," says Bernard Rollin of Colorado State University. "It is a return to the roughly fair contract those who have husbanded animals for virtually all of human history have had--that of taking great pains to put them into the best possible environment one could find to meet their physical and psychological natures."
The Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS) began a formal campaign to raise awareness about conditions related to confined farm animals in 2005. By the end of 2006, HSUS had drawn sufficient public attention to the wretched plight of laying hens. Its campaign helped change the egg-purchasing policies of several large companies, including Ben and Jerry's.
"We will be phasing in the 'good' eggs over the next four years," says Sean Greenwood, spokesman for the ice cream company that markets itself as socially conscious. "We're not chicken experts and learned about all this from the Humane Society. But we are a company that believes in being fair to animals."
According to Paul Shapiro, director of HSUS's Factory Farm Campaign, "We looked at major buyers and worked with them to stop buying the most abusive types of eggs that are available. Ben and Jerry's is a huge company, and it deserves credit for improving the welfare for hens who are laying eggs for its ice cream."
But Shapiro cautions against assuming that all is well. "Consumers need to...