United Poultry Concerns Battery Hens
A fix in the henhouse
Egg industry stalked by pressure to give its birds more room

By Todd Hartman, Rocky Mountain News
October 16, 2002

PLATTEVILLE - The hens at pastoral Morning Fresh Farms produce 700,000 eggs a day, but you'd never know it heading up the long driveway. There isn't a chicken in sight.

They're stored in elongated barns, packed in cages stacked almost floor to ceiling, 12 to 16 rows high. These hens are protein machines, each cranking out 250 eggs per year in what farmers call a triumph of agricultural efficiency.

Industry critics, though, call such operations inhumane. And in a seismic shift in the world of factory farming, animal rights groups have scored a small, yet stunning victory for the chickens.

The egg industry, surrendering to pressure that has been exerted on its biggest customers, is giving its hens a hair more room. Now allotted about 48 square inches of space apiece, hens will eventually get up to 67 square inches in which to squat their lives away before the inevitable conversion into pot pies.

On one hand, the change is puny. One chicken will still have less space than an 8-by-10-inch photograph. But looked at another way, the agreement marks a surprising concession.

"The entire Western world is becoming educated about how the modern egg industry is treating its birds - which is badly," said Karen Davis, head of Virginia-based watchdog group United Poultry Concerns.

The shift also bolsters a trend suggested by the growing market for natural foods: that Americans are paying increasing attention to where food actually comes from.

"We focus on what the customer wants," said Rex Thorpe, controller for Morning Fresh Farms, an hour drive north of Denver. "I've never questioned whether we should do it or not - if the customer wants it, that's what we're here to do."

In the egg world, Morning Fresh Farms has a better reputation than most - a model for the industry in the words of one competitor. It was one of the earliest signatories to a voluntary agreement with its industry trade organization, United Egg Producers, to give its hens more room. And already, the company has entered the first phase of a 10-year UEP compliance plan, cutting some of its mammoth henhouses from 30,000 to 28,000 birds. Moreover, the company was already giving some of its hens more space than industry standards.

Morning Fresh Farms predicts the new standards will cost the company more than $1 million because of the need to construct more henhouses to comply with the additional space requirements.

"We're further ahead of the curve than most producers," said Derek Yancey, Morning Fresh's president.

Still, Morning Fresh, like other egg farmers contacted by the Rocky Mountain News, wouldn't allow a reporter or photographer inside its henhouses. Company officials said they have to keep their birds safe from avian diseases people might carry on the bottoms of their shoes. Critics call that claim a conventional industry excuse to keep the public from witnessing the crowding behind henhouse walls.

Morning Fresh calls itself Colorado's largest egg producer in a state that is home to only a few major egg farms. At least two of those have also agreed to give their hens more space. A spokesman for one, Sparboe Farms in Hudson said the company is just getting started, cutting flocks by the 5 percent called for in the first phase.

The space standards could add 5 to 10 cents to the cost of producing a dozen eggs, said Garth Sparboe, a sales and marketing executive for the Minnesota-based company.

Whether consumers will pick up the tab isn't clear, but Sparboe said the company isn't opposed to the project.

"The American grocery shopper has interests and needs that have changed over time, and the egg industry is attempting to work in that arena," Sparboe said.

Still, he and other industrial officials say, the public has the efficiency of present-day industrial egg-farming methods to thank for such an affordable protein source. A dozen eggs sell for about $1.20 in the grocery store.

But cheap eggs don't justify animal cruelty, activists say. And the new space requirements for chickens - while signaling an important shift in the treatment of farm animals - mean little in practical terms, they say.

"In my opinion, it's a program that allows (the egg industry) to say they're doing something, while doing very, very little," said Cyd Szymanski, owner of Colorado Natural Eggs, which buys its eggs only from "cage-free" chicken flocks. Cage-free chickens are still crowded inside barns, but unlike their caged brethren can walk around and spread their wings a bit.

One industry critic with high credibility within the agriculture community is Colorado State University assistant professor of animal science Temple Grandin, best known for designing slaughterhouses for livestock that reduce stress on the animal prior to death. She said the egg industry is improving, but the new standards are too weak.

"Some of these people have forgotten a hen is a live animal," Grandin said. "This is what happens when people get totally desensitized to suffering."

Grandin said the industry is still held back by old-guard, animals-as-machines views that are standing in the way of more progressive approaches. She said in many cases, hens are still crammed so tight in cages they can't lie down.

But she had kinder words for another set of hen standards pushed by McDonald's restaurants. Those will give the hens slightly more room, 72 square inches apiece. And unlike the United Egg Producers standards, McDonald's is requiring compliance now, instead of over a 10-year period. The company will audit its suppliers, and won't buy eggs from producers that don't meet the standards.

For their part, egg farmers say they are unfairly vilified by animal rights activists, who focus on the worst-run operations and paint the industry with too broad of a brush. They say egg farms are designed to protect chickens from predators and from the pecking of fellow chickens, as well as to keep the process sanitary and products safe for consumers. Well-cared-for animals are crucial to producing a good egg, they say.

Ken Klippen, a Washington D.C., lobbyist for egg producers, argues that a caged environment is "more humane" from the standpoint of the chicken's health.

"They're less prone to disease, they're not pecking at their own droppings, they're less prone to parasites," Klippen said.

Klippen said it was changes by the European Union, which is phasing out chicken cages altogether by 2012, that led the egg producers to modify cage standards in the United States. The industry, he said, wanted to take action before any U.S. government mandates.

Asked about the reluctance to allow a reporter inside a henhouse, Klippen cited the concern of disease. "We don't have anything to hide," he said.

But Dave Turunjian, an egg farmer in Niwot, says otherwise. He used to let people look at his endless row of chicken cages and they'd come away teary-eyed. "It was just a depressing sight, seeing them packed in there," he said.

Now, Turunjian runs a cage-free operation - and lets visitors in all the time to see his 12,000-bird barns.

He sells his product to Szymanski's Colorado Natural Eggs. The company has cornered 8 percent of the Colorado egg market - despite eggs selling for around $2.70 a dozen. And Szymanski, citing the growing popularity of cage-free eggs in Europe, believes the market for such eggs will only grow.

"People are more and more concerned about the environment, about what they eat, what they breathe," Szymanski said. "I don't think this is going away. I'm glad to be on this side of it, not the other."

Caption 1: Morning Fresh Farms employee Jessica Garcia uses lights to view the interior of eggs. She is looking for poor quality, dirt, blood spots and cracks that may require the eggs to be recleaned or rejected. Colorado's egg industry is moving toward giving its laying hens more room in henhouses that use cages.

Caption 2: Chickens roam free at Hillside Egg Farm near Niwot. Dave Turunjian, who runs the egg farm, says he used to let visitors view the operation when it still used cages, and the people would come away teary-eyed. "It was just a depressing sight, seeing (the birds) packed in there," he says. Now Turunjian uses a cage-free operation and still lets visitors view the 12,000-bird barns. The response has been much better.

United Poultry Concerns, Inc.
PO Box 150
Machipongo, VA 23405-0150
FAX: 757-678-5070

(Battery Hens: Egg industry stalked by pressure to give its birds more room )

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