When most people hear the word farm, they think of a large red barn, a fenced-in yard, and chickens roaming freely in the sunlight. Unfortunately, that scene is hardly common in contemporary America. Most companies in the poultry industry keep their chickens in nightmarish conditions. The workers cram the birds into cages smaller than a piece of paper, never letting them spread their wings or even see sunlight. To offset the mortality rates caused by this overcrowding, the companies lace their birdfeed with antibiotics, ultimately creating vaccine-resistant diseases that harm both birds and humans. The whole process results in miserable birds and less nutritious products, but the poultry industry persists in these practices because they are cost-effective.
Naturally, many people who discover the cruel origins of their meals want to switch to a more ethical company. However, it is surprisingly difficult to buy eggs that come from truly humane farms. Many companies put misleading labels on their cartons to trick the consumer into thinking they practice ethical farming, when in fact they persist in cruelty for the sake of profit.
The most deceptive of these labels is all natural. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) provides no official definition for this label, and there is little legislation on its proper use. The term is so vague that Cadbury Schweppes once tried to advertise the drink 7UP as “all natural” based on the fact that high fructose corn syrup comes from corn. Furthermore, the label does not say anything about how the animals are treated.
The label vegetarian eggs does hint at how the companies treat their chickens, but the picture is not encouraging. When a company calls its eggs vegetarian, it means it feeds its chickens a meat-free diet. The problem is that chickens are omnivores and are supposed to eat insects as well as grain. Most likely, the chicken who laid the eggs never went outside or ate natural vitamins found in insects to substitute the missing parts of her diet.
Even labels like cage-free, free-range and certified organic are ambiguous at best. Cage-free means exactly what it says: the chickens do not have cages and are thus able to nest, walk, etc. However, they generally don’t have access to the outdoors, and the sizes of their “cage-free” spaces are not regulated. Also, the farmers are still allowed to trim the chickens’ beaks, a practice that prevents cramped and agitated birds from mutilating themselves or each other.
Free-range chickens are much like cage-free chickens, except they do have outdoor access. Unfortunately, there are no requirements for how long the chickens have access to the outdoors or the quality of the yard. Furthermore, the companies are allowed to starve the chickens in order to induce molting; by forcing all of the birds to molt at the same time, factory farms can regulate the egg-laying seasons for increased productivity. Organic farms have all these problems, as well. The main difference between them and free-range farms is that they have to feed their birds an organic diet.
Of course, there are many organic and free-range farms that treat their animals well. However, the current labeling system makes it difficult for consumers to differentiate between farmers who act ethically and those who barely meet the lax regulations. The American public needs a more honest poultry industry, one without misleading labels and hidden loopholes. If these “green” companies truly wish to earn a reputation as ethical food providers, then they need to stop mimicking the multi-million-dollar agribusinesses and start making their farms look more like the picture on the carton.
Photos courtesy of fishermansdaughter, Flickr Creative Commons, Robert Couse-Baker, Flickr Creative Commons, and Wikimedia Commons