Before the animal rights movement, the egg was a kind of droll and comic object—used in phrases like “laid an egg” and “egg on my face,” and thrown at buildings or public figures. The chicken itself was comic–everyone’s favorite synonym for cowardice and for gender stereotypes (“mother hen” and “hen party”). A silly, overprotective bird that lays eggs and can barely fly? What’s not to ridicule?
Thanks to hidden cameras, animal welfare activists have shown America “where eggs come from” and it is not a pretty sight. In addition to confinement of an egg hen to less than a filing cabinet’s amount of space, egg layers are shockingly disposed of when they are of no use to the industry. Reports of “spent” hens fed alive into a wood chipper hit the news a few years ago. This year 50 million egg laying hens in the US were asphyxiated to reduce farmer losses from “bird flu”—risks partially if not completely caused by the factory farm conditions they are kept in!
The same appalling conditions tempt fires and these innocent, sentient animals are regularly burned alive by the thousands. News stories typically report the “shed could not be saved” and the “farmer lost thousands of dollars”—not even mentioning the animals incinerated alive because of factory farmer greed.
Last week, food giant McDonald’s announced it would use 100 percent cage-free eggs in ten years. It is a game changer which will transform other top food producers, egg producers and the awareness of food consumers themselves. Thank you, McDonald’s!
But there is another aspect to the egg industry that is less well covered—the grinding up alive of unwanted males at the hatchery, called maceration. Many could not believe that just-hatched, peeping, fluffy male chicks like those given to children at Easter are fed alive into grinders by dispassionate workers at hatcheries until videos surfaced. At the Hy-Line hatchery in Spencer, Iowa, 150,000 are ground up alive every day.
Unlike videos of sick caged hens which the egg industry disputes as not the norm, United Egg Producers, the trade group that represents 85 percent of US egg producers and 180 egg farms, confirms the slicing up of newborn males. “There is, unfortunately, no way to breed eggs that only produce female hens,” UEP spokesman Mitch Head told the Associated Press when videos of the carnage first hit. “If someone has a need for 200 million male chicks, we’re happy to provide them to anyone who wants them. But we can find no market, no need.”
Needless to say, if there is “no way” to spare males from death-at-birth, there is no way to make eggs truly “cruelty-free” if they come from a major hatchery.
It is ironic that UEP which has traditionally defended battery cages, “debeaking” of chicks with a hot knife (so they won’t peck each other) and even “force molting” which gets one more egg cycle out of abused birds supports McDonald’s new ethical campaign.
“Recognizing that customers place value on having choices in the type of eggs they purchase, hens today are raised by our farmer members using a variety of housing and egg production practices,” UEP CEO Chad Gregory said as if animal suffering behind a food product were a consumer “choice” like vanilla or chocolate.
Still, UEP is a business and, like McDonald’s, it is finally hearing its customers. Thank you, animal rights activists!
Martha Rosenberg is a freelance journalist and the author of the highly acclaimed “Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health,” published by Prometheus Books. Check her Facebook page.