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But it’s so warm and cozy in here December 26, 2009

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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The plight of the egg-laying chicken has been propelled to the forefront of the farm animal welfare debate by the likes of PETA and the Humane Society of the US, who have made photos and videos of chickens piled up in wire “battery” cages centerpieces of their campaigns for years. This focus on the humble bird was rewarded in 2008 and 2009 with the first US state laws banning small cages. California’s Proposition 2, passed directly by voters through referendum, phases out small cages by 2015, and Michigan’s new law does so by 2019.

According to a recent article in Agweek,* the industry and government’s response to this spark of rebellion against caged chicken operations (which currently produce about 96% of the eggs consumed in the US) is to commission studies to determine whether, in fact, chickens dislike being caged. One of these studies, funded by the USDA, will take three years to figure out how chickens really feel about their claws growing around the wire grids that make up cage floors. Perhaps their powers of discernment will enable them to tell whether it bothers the chickens in the lower tiers to be constantly pissed and shat on by the chickens stacked above them. If they try really hard, they might even find out whether a seven-pound chicken considers the 8×8.5-inch space she can carve out from her neighbors to be a bit on the tight side, or just warm and cozy, the perfect spot in which to immobilize herself for the rest of her life.

Of course, we need serious animal welfare research – it sometimes yields results that are both counterintuitive and important. My post on the use of grinding as a form of euthanasia for male chicks pointed out that although we instinctively recoil from the thought of it, it may actually be a relatively humane practice. But there really isn’t anything new and important to find out about battery cages. Industry research has already demonstrated beyond a doubt that they’re inhumane. The Humane Society’s review of alternative egg-laying systems cites dozens of studies in journals like Applied Animal Behaviour Science, British Poultry Science, and the Journal of Animal Science that confirm the worst consequences of caging chickens: severe osteoporosis from lack of exercise and extreme frustration due to being unable to perform natural behaviors, including laying eggs in a nest, flapping wings, dust bathing, and even standing erect. So when the United Egg Producers and the USDA team up to give it a few more years of study, what they’re really doing is stalling, hoping that the public will move on to another hotbutton by the time the study is over. If not, they can always commission another one.

Fun fact: The USDA allegedly gave the American Egg Board $3 million to battle against Proposition 2 in California; after the USDA and UEP were sued, a federal judge ruled that the funds could not be used until after the ballot was over. See this SF Chronicle article for an overview.

*Crumb, M., “Industry Practice Ruffling Feathers,” Agweek, November 30, 2009: 41.

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