Warning – Sit back in your chair and grab a beverage, this one is lengthy.
One would think that as many years as I have under my belt in industrial animal production that nothing would surprise me let alone faze me. In other words I’m somewhat jaded.
A friend sent me a link to a video clip on You Tube that left me shaking my head and asking “are you serious”. A slick campaign has been conjured up to convince the general public that The United Egg Producers (UEP) have the “premier animal welfare” for their laying hens with their very own seal of certification.
After watching, I set out to discover exactly what it meant to be UEP certified not realizing what a herculean task this would be or how confused I would become. Like most, I first searched the internet and found web addresses for uepcertified.com, unitedegg.com, and uepcertified.org. Having a suspicious mind when I find that there is a commercial web address (.com) and a non-profit web address (.org) for the same entity, red flags rise up, and it warrants further investigation. I found that all three are one and the same – promoting corporate ag and caged/non-caged egg production in confinement buildings.
Further confusion came when I read the UEP website, unitedegg.com, and I quote, “United Egg Producers (UEP) is a Capper-Volstead cooperative of egg farmers from all across the United States and representing the ownership of approximately 95% of all the nation’s egg-laying hens.” I didn’t realize that independent farmers were producing the majority of the eggs in this country I thought the eggs came from the vertically integrated system whereby a corporation owns everything except the mortgage on the farm they contract with and the manure their animals produce. I warrant that this needs further investigation, but that’s for another time!
Wading through all of the B.S., and I’m being polite here folks, I came out having to go back a second and third time to figure it all out. I printed out the freely available UEP Animal Husbandry Guidelines for U.S. Egg Laying Flocks which was found on both the .com and .org websites thinking that was the best place to start.
The 31 page document begins with a short history of egg laying chickens starting in the 1940’s and stimulates a not so wonderful picture of “small backyard flocks” producing the majority of eggs for our country at that time. It’s all in the wording folks that will lead you to think that industrial production and caged confined conditions that the corporate types now use are the best thing since sliced bread.
The first item that gave me a good chuckle is the claim that “the modern cage system has eliminated most diseases of the 1940’s, provided the hens with protection against the weather (environmental controlled housing) and predators, while also improving food safety, the environment (air and water), and animal welfare”. My perpetual habit of talking to myself left me wondering aloud “are these people for real”?
Most chicken diseases prevalent in the 1940’s have been eliminated, if not eradicated, due to development of vaccines, not cages. Secondly, “environmental controlled housing” is for the purpose of controlling every aspect of the chicken’s short life and wringing the most production out of the chickens. These people don’t give a hoot about protecting the hens the hens need to be protected from their way of thinking!
The insinuation that the modern cage system has improved food safety made me almost hysterical. Not so long ago a huge egg recall occurred because of salmonella and consumers becoming ill. The record speaks for itself. The companies involved are part of this confined housing caged system and UEP links to their website. I’d be willing to bet that the company is a member of UEP!
The claim of the modern caged system being an improvement for the environment “(air and water)” is more than hysterical. I had to stop reading and thinking for a while because I was simply flabbergasted. One of the talking points of federal legislation that UEP is promoting, H.R. 3798 that amends the Egg Products Inspection Act is – prohibition of “excessive ammonia levels in egg-laying henhouses”.
Highly acclaimed benefits of confined caged laying hens is that tens-of-thousands can be raised in a small amount of space (confinement building). Most often the building takes up less than one acre of land. Naturally, the hens excrete waste in the form of manure and an excessive amount of ammonia is produced. Where does everyone think that ammonia goes? For the benefit of those who don’t know – the excessive amounts of ammonia are released from the confinement houses into the air by way of huge exhaust fans. Not only is the ammonia released into the air, it comes back down onto the land and water as nitrogen making it available for excessive amounts of runoff into our waterways.
Secondly, how in the world does UEP think they are going to be able to stop the hens from excreting waste and producing ammonia inside of a confinement building, caged or not? If the theory of giving more space to the hens, which is included in the legislation I’ve mentioned, everyone better think again. This won’t reduce the number of hens inside buildings. Industry will only build the housing larger to accommodate the same number of hens, if not more.
The part about improving animal welfare gave me indigestion! No matter which way you spin it, a cage is a cage whether it is conventional, enriched, or cage free confinement buildings. The “enriched cage system” is the crux of the entire campaign and unbelievably “HSUS has embraced this which I wrote about in an earlier post. On the flip side evidently HSUS believes that this system will improve conditions for caged laying hens, making a trade-off that anything is better than nothing!
UEP’s Animal Husbandry Guidelines allow for beak trimming citing advantages that may include, and I underline the word “may”, reduced pecking, reduced feather pulling, reduced cannibalism, better feather condition, less fearfulness, less nervousness, less chronic stress, and decreased mortality. What this means is that beak trimming keeps the hens from picking on one another. If the hens weren’t bored to death being confined in a cage they wouldn’t peck on one another they would have other interests in pecking such as worms, bugs, grasses, or other items in the real natural environment.
The drawbacks of beak trimming cited by UEP guidelines are inability to feed, short term pain, perhaps chronic pain, and acute stress. Obviously and in the mind of UEP, these are all fair tradeoff’s in the welfare of the hens so that long term the hens don’t peck one another to death out of boredom from being caged. Never mind that inability to feed or chronic pain is at issue as well. I don’t suppose the thought that the entire method of raising confined caged hens is not in the best interest to the welfare of the animal.
UEP’s talking points for the proposed federal legislation says that it will provide egg laying hens with “nearly” double the space of current conventional cages and add “”enrichments”” such as perches, nesting boxes, and scratching areas that will allow birds to express natural behaviors.” Sounds good when one looks at the words however the hens will still be in cages!
As I’ve evidenced in my great egg adventure, our hens express natural behaviors by running, jumping, flying, perching, flapping their wings at will, dust bathing and digging holes until they are almost covered, foraging for worms, bugs, and grasses and many other antics they decide to participate in. They also have nesting boxes and are able to run freely inside and outdoors. That my friend’s is expressing “natural behaviors”!
Furthermore, and according to UEP, “Today there are approximately 235 egg farmers with flocks of 75,000 hens or more. These farms care for about 95% of the approximately 290,000,000 laying hens in the United States.” How can there be only 235 farms raising 290,000,000 laying hens in this country? I found it impossible to find the number of acres utilized however I think the numbers above are self-explanatory.
I noticed in the many video clips available from UEP that the hen houses and cages are immaculate and promote thoughts of a sterile environment. Anyone who’s ever raised livestock or has been inside of a barn knows that animals naturally defecate however from what UEP is showing their hens must not do it. Quite frankly the inside of the confinement caged hen houses is cleaner than most human populated houses according to the pictures shown. Maybe we should all go and live in hen houses!
In my wanderings through related info and websites I found that UEP had a contact person from GolinHarris for further info about the legislation I’ve mentioned. My first thought was “what’s a GolinHarris”? I took a peek and found a piece of interesting info and decided to look no further because it was enough to figure out what a GolinHarris is -“For our clients, Communicate to Win is a driving force for building, sustaining and protecting corporate brands and reputations around the world.” Of course there’s a lot more words on the website, enough to make my head spin.
UEP is spending big bucks to drive through legislation that will define labeling allowances for eggs – Require labeling on all egg cartons to inform consumers of the methods used to produce the eggs, such as: “”eggs from caged hens,” “eggs from hens in enriched cages,” eggs from cage-free hens,” and “eggs from free range hens.” Aha! Eggs from hens in enriched cages…….. A little too obvious for me! Why anyone in their right mind would think that defining the type of cage or confinement makes it better for the hen’s welfare is beyond me. Doesn’t congress have better things to do than protect those who would mislead consumers into thinking that eggs from “enriched cages” are somehow better?