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Can a conscious death be humane? September 18, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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I don’t know about you, but I’d like to be unconscious when I kick the bucket. No last-minute grasping at the final shreds of life for me. Let me go in peace, preferably without even knowing it.

That’s what humane slaughter requires for many food animals, too. Cows and pigs must be “rendered insensible” before slaughter, so that they don’t know what’s going on and can’t feel any pain. Now, that’s not to say that such idyllic circumstances actually obtain at slaughterhouses, as a recent article in The Atlantic makes clear. In A Call for USDA Vigilance in Humane Treatment of Food Animals, former Humane Society undercover investigator Cody Carlson discusses the recent closure (and reopening) of Central Valley Meat, a dairy cow slaughterhouse, for violations of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act.

Commenting on the article, I noted that while I agreed with Carlson that the USDA’s multiple mandates make it impossible for the agency to truly protect animal welfare, it was still possible to eat meat and dairy ethically by choosing products vetted by strong animal welfare certifications. Responding to my comment, a person identified as Janet Weeks flounced “You do realize that birds and rabbits are NOT protected under the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act …there is not even an attempt to make them ‘insensible’ to pain. They are slaughtered while fully conscious.” End of discussion, I suppose, for Ms. Weeks.

Well, just to get one thing out of the way: strong animal welfare certification programs like Animal Welfare Approved do require that chickens, rabbits, and any animals covered by the program are stunned to the point of unconsciousness before slaughter. So if you eat meat certified by one of these programs, it doesn’t matter whether the USDA follows suit or not.

But Ms. Weeks’ comments gave me pause, because they made me realize that most of probably assume reflexively that unconsciousness is a prerequisite for a humane death. But is it? Let’s get personal again. I’d like to be unconscious when I die, but I know that lots of people aren’t and that it’s quite likely I won’t be. Does that make my probable death inhumane? I don’t think so. If it’s pretty quick and not terribly painful, that’s all I can reasonably hope for. Ideally I’d like unconsciousness, but I can live with the alternative (so to speak) if it’s not too bad.

I think the same is true for animals. It doesn’t really bother me that the USDA doesn’t require chickens to be insensible when they’re killed. As long as they are killed quickly and effectively, I’d say that’s good enough. And by the by, that’s the way a lot of small farmers do it. They don’t have the big mechanized stun baths used by conventional industrial players. So when you are being all virtuous buying your chicken at the farmers market, realize that it may have been conscious when it was killed. Having seen firsthand what that looks like (at chicken supplier Kadejan in Glenwood, Minnesota) I gotta tell ya, it’s pretty much a non-event. The chickens, when held securely upside-down, seem quite calm and not remotely aware of what’s coming, and a quick slit to the throat bleeds them right out.

What do you think? Can a conscious death be humane?

Happy hens = sad pig farmers June 19, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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Hens crammed into battery cages. If there’s one stock image that animal welfare agencies have battered into our brains to convince us that conventional animal farming is bad, that’s the one. A bunch of featherless birds sticking their necks through wire netting, clambering over one another in their rows upon rows of cages stacked higher than you can reach.

That image might not hold true for hens in the US forever, based on a rather surprising – shocking, even – turn of events. The egg industry and animal welfare activists, longtime foes, have come together to agree on a new way to raise hens. (Democrats and Republicans, take note.) The United Egg Producers, an industry association representing over eighty percent of US egg production, and the Humane Society of the US have agreed to replace battery cages with bigger cages designed not only to give the hens more room, but to “enrich” (that’s the technical term) their lives with amenities like perches and nest boxes.

Even more extraordinarily, these two groups are trying to get their agreement set in stone as federal law. In a bill before Congress which had been part of the 2012 Farm Bill until it got axed yesterday, the Egg Products Inspection Act Amendments mandate that all egg producers – not just the majority represented by the United Egg Producers – follow the new guidelines. Although the egg bill can no longer ride on the coat-tails of the Farm Bill, I’m guessing it’ll be reintroduced in some other form presently.

The twists and turns don’t stop there. The National Pork Producers Council, of all things (another industry association) has gotten into the fray by coming out publicly against the egg bill. Why would a bunch of pig farmers care about how hens are raised, you might ask? Turns out they don’t like the precedent it sets. Per the pork guys, this legislation marks the first time the federal government would get involved in setting production standards for farming. Given the current brouhaha over sow gestation crates, I guess they have reason to be worried.

I think the pork guys are being a little dramatic when they say the egg bill sets a historic precedent for meddling in farmers’ lives. Federal organic standards, after all, require that dairy farmers pasture their cows for a minimum number of days per year. When I first heard about the egg bill, my reaction was to say to myself “About time.”

Upon reflection, though, perhaps the pig farmers have a point. It does seem a bit odd for the US government to take a stand on how many inches of space a hen should have. The vast majority of congresspeople can’t possible have a clue how much space hens need; what they’re supposed to be experts on is how to run a country, not how to run a farm. Would a better solution be to legalize the principle that food animals must be raised humanely and let the courts work out the inevitable battles about how to make that a reality? What do you think?

McWilliams, enfant terrible and radical oversimplifier April 16, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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At the end of last week, James McWilliams, a sort of enfant terrible of the sustainable food movement, disparaged the notion that we can eat meat sustainably or humanely in an opinion piece in the New York Times. His claims would take a thirty-page essay to dissect, but I’d like to at least get a start here, because the facts are a lot more complicated than McWilliams would have you think.

First McWilliams notes in a series of one-liners that grassfed cows emit more methane (a potent greenhouse gas) than conventional grain-finished ones, and that pastured chickens have a similarly worse effect on global warming than their conventional cousins. It’s hard to refute his claim about chickens because he doesn’t give an argument or a source, but on grassfed cows the science is still in flux. Several studies have confirmed higher methane emissions from grassfed cows, but others suggest that it depends on which grasses they eat.  Further, methane emissions can be offset by the carbon sequestration that maintaining grasslands for grazing (versus converting them to cropland for feed) allows. This last point – that grazing lands can be good for the climate – is one that McWilliams completely ignores when he argues, later, that tearing down rainforests to graze cattle is hugely unsustainable. He’s right, but that means we should avoid meat from cattle from deforested land – not that we should avoid eating cattle grazed on native American prairie.

Next McWilliams turns to claims that we can raise animals humanely, pointing out that even pastured chickens come from industrial breeds which quickly go lame as they peck through their sunny yards. I would add, the birds from which these chickens are bred often don’t get the benefit of pasture, and are chronically hungry to boot. So McWilliams is right that we should avoid these industrial strains, but wrong that they are our only option. Though few in number, there are some farmers who use alternative breeds. I recently bought a lovely (and delicious) Freedom Ranger chicken from Julie Stinar at Evensong Farm in Sharpsburg, Maryland that is just such an alternative.

Also on the humane front, McWilliams points out that humanely raised pigs still get nose rings to prevent them from rooting around. Again, a more accurate statement would be that many but not all pigs get this treatment. And even when they do, it’s not necessarily the case that their lives are completely ruined by it. “Humanely-raised” cannot mean “raised without a moment of discomfort”; if it did, none of us would qualify as humanely raised (and our parents might just take exception to that).

Finally, McWilliams attacks Joel Salatin, whom he calls the “guru” of rotational grazing, for getting his chicken feed off-farm. Again, the fact that one farmer buys his feed doesn’t mean they all do; I have visited several farms that are entirely self-sufficient with feed. The only thing they buy is the odd mineral supplement, just as we might buy vitamins for ourselves. But it’s quite a leap of logic to say that even farms that buy feed are therefore unsustainable. You have to look at how the feed is grown, and then even more importantly you have to look at the caloric and nutritional benefits of the meat that is ultimately produced from the animals that eat the feed, and compare it to the alternatives. That’s what requires a thirty-page paper to do. Suffice it to say here, once again, that the story is not as simple as McWilliams would like us to believe.

Damage control at Sparboe Farms April 1, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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I felt no small degree of personal satisfaction at Mercy For Animals’ exposé of egg producer Sparboe Farms last November. Sparboe had already gotten on my bad side by denying me access when I asked to see their facilities for research purposes. I showed up at the doorstep of their headquarters in Litchfield, Minnesota asking to be shown around or at least to talk to someone who could tell me about their operations. I was politely told that they refused to do tours of their barns due to “hygiene concerns” and to call back about interviewing someone. Two phone calls later, a very nice junior assistant got back to me to tell me that Sparboe’s policy was not to talk to the media. When I asked why, she replied that Sparboe didn’t feel that it was in their interest. Now that Mercy For Animals has uncovered the nasty conditions and inhumane treatment of hens there, we know why.

What I’d like to focus on in this post, though, isn’t the mistreatment itself, but the company’s response to its discovery. On the dedicated website Sparboe created to discuss the situation, president Beth Sparboe Schnell has this to say:

…these incidents should never have happened in the first place—but they did and we accept that responsibility.  We were not as vigilant as we should have been in monitoring our farm employees to make sure that they were following our animal care code of conduct.

The first line is a refreshingly straightforward admission of guilt. But the second is a depressingly familiar example of passing the buck in an industry that refuses to acknowledge the depth of its problems. What exactly does Sparboe Schnell say she and the other leaders of her company are culpable of? Placing their trust in a few bad apples who didn’t uphold Sparboe’s real values, apparently. True to that interpretation, Sparboe Schnell notes that since the investigation they’ve fired four employees and one manager.

So Sparboe is not villain, but victim. Victim of its own trusting, empowering culture. Shame on those baddie employees for taking advantage of it.

Give me a break. If Beth Sparboe Schnell didn’t know what was going on in those barns – and that’s giving her the benefit of the doubt – it’s because she didn’t have any interest in finding out. And if the president of the company doesn’t have any interest in something, her employees won’t either. Which means, regardless of what codes of conduct they have posted on the wall, they don’t give a damn about animal welfare.

Kudos to Target, Lunds and Byerly’s, and McDonald’s for dropping Sparboe as a supplier. The only problem is, their other suppliers probably aren’t any better; they just haven’t yet hosted any investigators from Mercy For Animals.

Cradle to grave April 16, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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I’ve just started flipping through Jonathan Safran Foer’s pro-vegetarian tome Eating Animals (book review soon to come).  I was primarily curious about Safran Foer’s point of view on putatively ethical methods of raising farm animals. We all know we should avoid factory-farmed meat, but with the budding renaissance of farmers markets and CSAs giving us access to humanely-produced meat, why would one still plump for vegetarianism?

Safran Foer takes as a case in point the production of broiler chickens. (That is, chickens raised for meat, not for eggs.) No matter how conscientiously farmers raise their chickens, he notes, virtually all farmers get their starter eggs or chicks through the mail from massive hatcheries that don’t bother themselves with inconvenient moral standards. So even though Clucky may be living it up on farmer Joe’s sunny pastures, her parents and grandparents back at the hatchery didn’t have it so good. And if you buy Clucky from Farmer Joe, you are supporting not just him, but the hatchery where he gets his birds and all their detestable factory farm practices.

Having made this case against the ethical credentials of even humanely-raised poultry, Safran Foer goes on to profile farmer Frank Reese of Good Shepherd Poultry, who breeds chickens himself without the assistance of commercial hatcheries. Safran Foer admits that Reese offers a cradle-to-grave ethical option; so it does exist, after all. However, Safran Foer claims Reese’s is the only ranch that can make this claim. Is this the case? While it is true that most chicken farms buy from breeders rather than breed themselves, I find it hard to believe that all breeders operate conventional factory-style hatcheries.  In particular, the tiny size of the heritage poultry market would make it difficult for heritage breeders to operate on the scale of conventional factory farms. However, I don’t have any evidence to prove that, even if smaller in scale, they are ethically any better. The best thing to do if you want to continue to buy Clucky and her peers is probably to probe your farmer on the source of her chicks and, if necessary, call her breeder and ask about their practices. If you’re lucky enough to find a farmer who breeds herself, one note: she may have had no choice but to buy from a conventional factory-style hatchery just to start off her first generation of birds. As long as she is now breeding successive generations independently, that shouldn’t be a reason to walk away. A one-time bargain with conventional hatcheries strikes me as an acceptable price to pay to become independent from them forever afterward.

If anyone reading this knows of breeders who stick to humane practices, please comment!

Industry self-policing: contradiction in terms? April 9, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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Growing public awareness of conventional animal agriculture goes hand in hand with growing public disgust with conventional animal agriculture. Some farm sectors, realizing this, have decided to pre-empt the latter by voluntarily adopting animal welfare programs. I guess they figure that if they can convince the public that they actually give a crap, and that they’re doing something to improve the conditions under which animals are raised, perhaps the public won’t pass referendums like California’s Proposition 2 banning poultry battery cages, veal crates, and gestation crates for pigs.

Are industry-led animal welfare initiatives anything more than a PR stunt? Let’s start to answer that question by looking at the National Pork Board’s PQA Plus certification program. “PQA” stands for “Pork Quality Assurance”, and this original version of the program was designed purely to improve food safety, not to improve animals’ lives. In 2007, according to the Pork Board, they updated the program and added the “Plus” to its title to

…reflect increasing customer and consumer interest in the way food animals are raised. PQA Plus was built as a continuous improvement program. Maintaining its food safety tradition to ensure that U.S. pork products continue to be recognized domestically and internationally as the highest quality and safest available, it also provides information to ensure producers can measure, track and continuously improve animal wellbeing. With PQA Plus, pork producers have another tool to demonstrate that they are socially responsible.

So the PQA Plus program gives something to producers – information so they can measure and improve animal wellbeing. But does it require anything of producers? It does – to get the certification, producers must undergo training and site assessments. Do they have to pass the assessments? Uh, no. Apparently, requiring that their members actually meet the standards upon which they are being assessed would be just a little too radical for the Pork Board. As Mark Whitney of the University of Minnesota extension school clarified in an article in The Farmer:

The assessment is not an audit or pass-fail test. It is an assessment resulting in suggestions on how to improve the current operation. It provides potential areas to add value to the operation, but does not define how and when these can or should be done.*

So much for our piggy friends. On the other hand, in 2005 the main industry body governing egg production, the United Egg Producers (UEP), resolved to prohibit its members from force molting hens through starvation/thirst, which had been common industry practice. According to the UEP, 83% of all US egg producers have since eliminated force molting. One can always wonder whether the annual audits that supposedly check compliance are genuine, but here industry has certainly taken a step in the right direction.

*The Farmer, July 2009, p. 8

BAWK bawk bawk bawk BAWK – what happened to my air conditioning? April 2, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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Animal welfare seems to be a pretty straightforward concept until you try to measure it. How do you figure out whether any particular animal – let’s say, a hen in the egg-production industry – has positive or negative welfare? There are some obvious physical signs of distress you can look for to determine whether she’s in an advanced stage of suffering: broken bones, missing feathers, a lame gait. But in the absence of these markers, how do you know if she’s happy or sad? Is there any way to tell whether a hen busily pecking through grass on pasture is happier than one intently pecking through straw on the concrete floor of an industrial henhouse? To the untrained eye, they are hard to distinguish.

Even to the trained eye, it’s not so easy to tell who’s got the good life. Some of the most sophisticated methods of assessing animal welfare measure the levels of corticosterone, a stress hormone, in manure. You’d think the more stress hormone, the worse off the animal. However, it turns out that corticosterone levels also rise during activities like mating, which presumably don’t make animals miserable. Another advanced research method is to give an animal various options – in our example above, the option of being inside or outside – and to assume that whatever she chooses is best for her welfare. However, this approach has a variety of problems, starting with the fact that animals, especially domesticated ones who have not been bred for street smarts, don’t necessarily know what’s good for them. Turkeys will stand with their necks outstretched in a rainstorm and choke to death on the water coming down their throats.

 One solution to the problem of measuring animal welfare is simply to give up and find an alternative criterion to judge whether we are treating animals ethically. Bernard Rollin, one of the most prestigious philosophical proponents of ethical treatment, focuses on the telos, or natural purpose, of animals as indicative of their well-being. If the way we raise animals allows them to exercise their natural instincts (if our practices respect the pigness of the pig, in his words) then Rollin would say we are doing right by them. That just assumes that the natural state of an animal is the best one, though, and if we really care about happiness and not just naturalness for its own sake, it would be nice to have a little more evidence that natural = happy. (To be fair to Rollin, he doesn’t reject the endeavor to measure animal welfare outright; he suggests that we supplement the concept of welfare with the notion of telos and use both to decide how to raise farm animals ethically.)

If we’re not willing to defend nature “red in tooth and claw” on its own merits, we have to find some way of bridging the gap between what’s natural and what promotes welfare. Perhaps the way to do it is as follows: recognizing that we cannot be sure that the natural environment is the optimal one for animal welfare, at least we know that by providing them with one (or as close to one as we can get in agriculture) we are not making animals worse off than they would have been without our intervention. The natural environment may not be heaven on earth, but at least we humans aren’t screwing things up.

Meat: the new diapers March 19, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Global warming.
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I’m sure you recently-minted parents out there know about the diaper controversy. Disposable diapers create mountains (literally) of waste. So, maybe twenty years ago, environmentalists started to attack them as yet another example of Americans’ willingness to trade sustainability for convenience. In response, some well-meaning parents decided to go back to smelly, messy cloth diapers. But then people realized that the environmental impact of washing all those cloth diapers was no joke, either. It turned out the story wasn’t as simple as it first seemed, and it wasn’t obvious what a sustainability-minded parent should do.

The current outcry about the unsustainability of meat-eating looks headed toward a similarly unsatisfying end. Proselytizing vegetarians (among them Paul McCartney, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Peter Singer) are pushing a very simple story: if you want to stop global warming, you should stop eating meat. Credible support for this argument comes from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) 2006 report “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” which claims that meat consumption is a bigger contributor to global warming than transportation. Since that report was published, the meat-bashing momentum has snowballed, culminating in one subsequently discredited study claiming that meat consumption was responsible for 51% of all global warming emissions!

If only it were that straightforward. The first problem with the blanket directive to eschew meat is that it characterizes all meat as climate-unfriendly. In fact, the global warming impact of different sources of meat (and dairy) varies widely. According to research published in Scientific American, beef cattle are thirteen times worse for the climate than chickens. And on a calorie-for-calorie basis, chicken meat is responsible for fewer greenhouses gases than plant-based foods like apples, bananas, spinach, and rice.* That means that eating low-impact meats like chicken can actually be better for the climate than eating high-impact plant-based foods. Once you start to compare low-impact meats to highly-processed vegetarian alternatives like tofu, a vegetarian diet can start to look downright irresponsible.

Not only does the meat-bashing movement disregard key distinctions between types of meat, it ignores the effects of producing meat in different ways. Nicolette Hahn-Niman elegantly defends the climate credentials of grass-fed beef in an October 2009 piece for the New York Times, and while I don’t agree with every claim she makes, her main point is valid. When cattle are raised on natural prairies – meaning that no rainforest is cleared to graze them and no grain is grown to feed them, but they simply eat naturally-occurring grasses – they have a relatively small climate footprint. That is, relative to conventionally-raised feedlot cattle. The fact that pasturing beef improves its climate “hoofprint” doesn’t, of course, prove that a diet which includes grass-fed beef is as benign as a vegetarian one (and that’s where I think Niman’s claims are overblown), but it does mean that even beef-eating doesn’t have to be quite the villain it was made out to be.

Finally, focusing on meat-eating as the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions ignores other food-based sources of emissions that might actually be bigger, but are less-easily quantified. I haven’t been able to track down hard numbers on this, but commentators like James McWilliams in his book Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly have identified the energy used in food preparation as one of the main contributors to global warming. That means that a burger cooked in a few minutes on the stove might be a more climate-friendly dinner than a (vegan!) pot of rice and beans that requires an hour of simmering. 

So a better slogan than “Stop Eating Meat to Stop Global Warming” might be “Stop Eating Conventionally-Produced Meat from Ruminants, Highly-Processed Foods, Foods Grown on Clearcut Forest and Foods Requiring Substantial Cooking to Stop Global Warming.” Think it’ll catch on?

*Calculated using greenhouse gas emissions per kg food produced for consumption in the UK (http://assets.wwf.org.uk/downloads/how_low_can_we_go.pdf) and calories per 100g food eaten (http://www.keepandshare.com/doc/13243/calories)

Jeffries Chicken Farm February 12, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Food ethics.
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This week take a look at the article I published in Heavy Table profiling Jeffries Chicken Farm, a do-it-yourself slaughterhouse in a suburb of Minneapolis. http://heavytable.com/jeffries-chicken-farm/

More counterintuitive chicken nuggets January 29, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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Photos of farm animals piled practically on top of each other in confinement can turn the stomachs of even the most inveterate carnivores. We can relate to the horrors of overcrowding. Where it might be hard for humans to imagine how much it bothers chickens to have the tips of their beaks cut off, or how much pigs miss rutting around in the dirt, or to what extent cows would prefer to feel the sun on their backs instead of being inside a barn, we don’t need quite such a leap of the imagination to sympathize with animals who are packed together so closely that they are constantly straining against each other to move. The notion of a chicken enclosed so tightly that it doesn’t even have room to stretch its wings seems to us ghastly, as ghastly as people being crowded so tightly into a cell that they cannot lift their arms.

 Which is why the results of a 2004 study* of meat chicken welfare are so surprising. First, a little background on the study for those of us who are skeptical of scientists’ motivations (rightly so, given the perverse incentives created by the hot pursuit of research funding). The lead researcher on the study is Marian Stamp Dawkins, an Oxford professor specializing in animal behavior who has written extensively of the need to better define, measure and protect animal welfare. Among animal welfare advocates, she is perceived to be one of the “good guys.” She and her team studied the determinants of chicken welfare in 2.7 million birds raised by ten major producers in the UK – a huge sample. They measured welfare using behavior – including walking ability and engagement in natural activities like preening and dust bathing as well as aggressive actions like pecking other birds – in addition to overall mortality rates and levels of corticosterone, a stress hormone, in bird manure. All in all, a very comprehensive approach.

What they found was that stocking density – or how closely the birds were packed together – was, although not unrelated to bird welfare, not nearly as important as other factors. What really mattered to chickens were the temperature and humidity levels in their houses, along with the amount of ventilation provided. (Poor showings for these variables caused damp litter and ammonia-soaked air, each of which in turn caused bird health to suffer and corticosterone levels to rise.) Stocking density had absolutely no affect on mortality rates or leg defects, two of the most important welfare markers, although it did negatively impact the birds’ gaits and increased the amount of jostling going on.

So yet again our intuition proves an unreliable guide to the happiness of animals. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t advocate that animals in confinement have more space to move around, or even (imagine!) go outside, but it does mean that we can’t assume, because a package of chicken breasts is marked “free range,” that the chickens who originally wore those breasts were happy, or even had a reasonably decent standard of living. Whether they did depends on many other factors which are pretty much invisible to the consumer. Therefore, the consumer has to find someone or something she can trust to be the expert – a farmer, a restaurant owner, a co-op, a certification – and buy from them. Looking for the words “free-range” on the package just won’t cut it.**

*Dawkins et al, “Chicken Welfare is Influenced More by Housing Conditions than by Stocking Density,” Nature, v. 427, January 22, 2004: 342-344.

**Note that the Dawkins study did not analyze egg-laying chickens, so it does not have any bearing on whether free-range eggs are necessarily more humanely raised than standard eggs, which are laid by chickens in cages. Meat chickens (the subject of this study) are never caged; they are housed on the floor of a chicken house, and given varying amounts of room to move around.

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