Cruelty By Pleasant View Farms
This photo is not of The Happy Hen, but this is how crowded the birds were when we visited.
“The Happy Hen Organic Fertile Brown Eggs” were advertised as satisfying “the demands of today’s health conscious
consumers.” A flyer described the Happy Hens as a “docile” and “hardy cross of the Rhode Island Red Rooster and the White Leghorn
Hen. They’re free running in a natural setting, and nest and lay eggs in individual nests of wheat straw. They’re humanely housed in
healthy, open-sided housing, for daily sunning–something Happy Hens really enjoy.”
On June 24, 1992, United Poultry Concerns president Karen Davis and vice president Allan Cate visited The Happy Hen, an enterprise of Pleasant View
Farms, a family poultry business run by Joe Moyer. We were driven 45 minutes to a remote contract Amish farmstead in Logantown, Pennsylvania where one
of the three Happy Hens houses was located. Through the netting at the front of the long barn we saw a sea of chickens’ faces looking out, as
though they were smashed up against the netting. Inside, the birds were wall to wall. They were severely debeaked and their feathers were in bad
condition– straggly, drab, and worn off. When we commented on the birds’ feathers, Moyer said, “We have a saying, the rougher they
look, the better they lay.” One hen lays 20-30 dozen (250) eggs a year. Moyer said this shows they’re treated well.
The 9,000 square foot building held 6,800 hens with one cockerel (a young rooster under a year old) per 100 hens. Each bird had 1 ¼ to 1 ½
square feet of space to run free in. The three Happy Hen houses were all alike. On our way back, a second house was pointed out to us with the same sea
of chickens’ faces smashed up against the netting looking out on the countryside.
The Happy Hens were “old”–“spent”–at 60 weeks of age (14 months old). At this point they were reclassified as
“Moyer’s Uncaged Hens” and trucked in crates to live poultry markets in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York City where they
fetched a dollar per bird compared to 25 cents or less at a spent fowl plant.
The Happy Hens had metal nest boxes along the wall with green plastic mesh to lay their eggs in. The nests we saw did not have “wheat
straw” or what Moyer called “a handful of shavings.” There were no perches. The chickens stood or roosted on a slatted wooden
platform running the length of the house down the center, or on the cement floor covered with sawdust shavings and chicken droppings. There was some
sort of manure pit beneath it all. There was netting at both ends of the barn with windows on one side and a “full open” adjustable curtain
on the opposite side.
The Happy Hens were force molted the same as battery cage hens. This means they were denied food for four or more days to force them to molt (lose
their feathers) and stop laying for a couple of months–an economic practice designed to manipulate egg prices. To keep mortality down during the
forced molt, the happy hens were given a vitamin and mineral supplement in their water called “Stress Arrest.” Moyer said,
“It’s bad, because they expect you to feed them. It used to bother me, but not so much now.” One forced molt was a particular
disaster, he remembered. Most of the Happy Hens died, probably because “they were too young and there was too much light in the house.”
The birds we saw had nubs and stubs and jags instead of beaks. A couple of hens “pecked” at our shoes. When I knelt down, they immediately
showed interest and curiosity. They did not act as if they would be “docile” if they had a real life. (If they are so docile, why are they
Moyer said he did not plan to decrease housing density, because “you have to pay the grower [his employee] more.” He paid 12 cents per
dozen brown organic eggs. If there were a market for “free-range” white organic eggs, he said he could produce them at ten cents a dozen.
In addition to The Happy Hens, Pleasant View Farms had 60,000 caged laying hens, 8 to 9 hens per battery cage, 60 square inches per individual hen
inside the cage. They lived in closed housing, i.e., a solid building without windows or sunlight. Moyer said he would like to “back off
this” if he could make a go of the “free-running” concept. Pleasant View Farms also produced–slaughtered–1,000 broiler
(meat) chickens a week. These were called “range,” organically fed chickens. We visited one of the broiler chicken houses, which had an
open area–“range”–for the chickens to go outside if they wished. They were hens about three weeks old. Moyer’s broiler
chickens were slaughtered at L & L Pheasantry in Hegins, Pennsylvania, where the Labor Day Pigeon Shoot used to be held each year.
Birds raised in the U.S. for meat may be sold as “range” if they have certified access to the outdoors. No other criteria, such as
vegetation, size of area, number of birds, or space per bird, are comprised in this term as currently defined by the Food Labeling Division of the Food
Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture which reviews and approves labels for federally inspected meat products. A
USDA employee told United Poultry Concerns, “Places I’ve visited may have just a gravel yard with no alfalfa or other vegetation. The birds
can exercise but cannot ‘range’–that is, sustain themselves.”
Eggs produced and sold in the U.S. may be characterized as “range” or whatever, because there is no legal or commercial definition of such
terms regulating the sale of eggs. The National Supervisor of Shell Eggs at USDA administers a voluntary program in which producers can use the USDA
grade mark if their eggs have been packaged under USDA supervision. The basis of label approval is the FDA Fair Packaging and Labeling Act which
prescribes labeling standards for things such as grade, weight, class, and producer of eggs, but there are no standards governing the term or the claim
“range” or similar advertisements on egg cartons, such as “free running,” “free roaming” or “free
walking.” An FDA staff member told UPC that a Minnesota egg producer used the term “free walking” to describe uncaged hens on a
concrete floor without nest boxes. He said that possibly “free range” claims could be illegal under the Nutrition Labeling Education Act
which provides that nutrition information should be stated in a manner that enables consumers to understand the information in the context of the total
daily diet. A question is whether an “environmental claim” concerning how hens used to produce eggs are housed could be evoked under this
Act. It is possible also that under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act a case could be made that birds are being kept in ways that significantly
differ from what people expect.
People expect “free range” and “cage free” to signify birds who spend much or most of their day outdoors with ample space,
exercise, sunlight, social life, and at least some sustainable vegetation. However, U.S. producers generally mean that the birds are uncaged and
confined indoors on the floor of a building with nest boxes along the wall. It seems that some or many “free-range” and
“cage-free” eggs may actually come from battery-caged hens so the eggs can be sold to consumers for more money.
What Can I Do?
Please choose delicious egg-free cooking and baking ingredients. For more information, click on www.upc-online.org/recipes and http://www.upc-online.org/freerange.html.
This article has been slightly edited and updated from its original publication in the Fall 1992 issue of Poultry Press, Volume 2, Number 4,
the quarterly magazine of United Poultry Concerns online at www.upc-online.org/pp.