“A victory for animals.” That’s what philosopher Peter Singer, a luminary of the animal protection movement, called it last week when Utah’s Governor Spencer Cox signed into law Bill 147, which mandates that all eggs produced in Utah be produced by cage-free chickens by 2025. With the law, Utah joins eight other states, including California, Colorado, and Massachusetts, that have gone cage-free in recent years. “This is a particularly exciting moment for us,” the Humane Society of the United States, which had lobbied for the change, proclaimed on its website.
Cage-free chickens may seem like a win. A growing number of Americans claim to care about animal welfare and the harms caused by a food system few consumers and voters understand. Proponents see laws like Utah’s as an incremental step toward more reforms and concessions that might align animal agriculture with environmental and ethical demands.
The problem is that it’s not clear that going cage-free is actually all that much better for birds. Nor are such laws necessarily a first step toward the massive reforms the egg and poultry industries desperately need.
Chicken is America’s favorite food. Any given year, the average American will eat about 120 pounds of it. To sate both the domestic and export market’s appetite, the United States will kill about nine billion chickens every year. Americans also love eggs, eating about 300 each annually. The 97 billion eggs the U.S. produces each year are laid by 325 million hens, most of whom spend their lives in tiny individual cages on factory farms. The chicken and egg industries, however, are two different things, producing two entirely different types of birds: broilers for meat and layers for eggs.
It didn’t start this way. At the turn of the twentieth century, chicken wasn’t a staple of the American diet, and most chicken meat eaten was that of birds too old to lay eggs or the small flocks kept on farms who could be fed on scraps and whatever they could dig up in the yard. When Herbert Hoover promised Americans a chicken in every pot on the campaign trail in 1928, he was promising not only prosperity but likely more chicken than the country’s chicken farmers could produce. That quickly changed with the rapid industrialization of American farming, which included both plants and animals.
Unfortunately for chickens, they are particularly suited to mass production. Their size, egg-laying capacity, and feed conversion ratio (how efficiently they turn food into muscle mass or eggs) are easily modifiable genetic traits, and the birds can survive being crammed into cages crammed into barns. Starting as early as the 1920s, chickens began to be bred more selectively, to maximize their productivity for either meat or egg production, but not both. Their breed diversity and welfare were sacrificed on the altar of productivity, setting the stage for the expansion of first chicken factory farms and then the application of the factory-farming model to pigs. This process, which the environmental health scholar Ellen Silbergeld calls the “chickenization” of American agriculture, has allowed Americans to eat plentiful and dirt-cheap chicken and eggs. It’s also come at a huge cost.
The damage done by the chicken industry is well documented: Broilers raised for meat chickens are not raised in cages, but in massive barns, many suffering injuries either from overcrowding and poor care or from simply being bred to grow too fast, resulting in lameness and broken bones. The cramped conditions can lead to disease, including zoonotic diseases like H5N1 avian flu, leading to widespread use of antibiotics to block the bacterial diseases, which in turn create the risk of antibiotic resistance in humans. Giant farms not only require vast amount of feed but also create vast amounts of waste, pouring runoff into streams and choking local communities with noxious smells. And workers at massive industrialized chicken plants that kill 140 chickens per minute are frequently injured, forced to wear diapers because line speeds and managers don’t allow bathroom breaks, and, as recently happened in Georgia, can die when chemicals used at slaughterhouses leak. Throughout Covid-19, many have been exposed to the virus through unsafe working conditions.
The egg industry gets less media attention but is no less hellish. The environmental impact of massive egg farms, including waste and smells, are similar to those of broiler farms, and workers can be exposed to unhealthy levels of dust and ammonia. Then there are the cages. On most egg farms, hens are locked in half-square-foot cages, unable to turn around or spread their wings. They live, eat, defecate, and pop out eggs at a rate of about 300 per year. Once their productivity starts to wane, at around 1.5 to 2 years of age, they will be killed and, both because they are not bred for meat and because the egg overproduction has destroyed their bodies, they will either end up in landfills or in low-quality processed meat products like pet food. And then there’s chick culling. The egg industry has no need for male birds, since the males of egg-laying breeds can’t be fattened up for slaughter as profitably as broilers. That means that every year about seven billion one-day-old male chicks are killed, usually either poisoned by gas or shredded in high-speed grinders that resemble wood chippers. Eggs, in other words, kill almost as many chickens as chicken meat.
Chickens freed from cages, as they have been in California and will be in Utah, aren’t freed from factory farms. Cage-free production doesn’t mean that chickens are set free to peck at the ground and flutter their wings in the sun. In fact, it’s not even clear what exactly cage-free means. There is no single, legally defined standard for cage-free production. The Utah law, like California’s before it, requires that producers meet the minimum animal welfare standards set out by the United Egg Producers, an industry group. These set the minimum space available to each hen at between one and 1.5 square feet each, depending on the specific type of housing. Of course, this might allow them to move around, but according to peer-reviewed research published in the journal Poultry Science, one square foot of space doesn’t let the average hen turn around unobstructed, and even 1.5 square feet don’t let her spread out her wings. To be able to move comfortably, chickens would need at the very least two square feet each, but ideally much more. Providing them more space, however, is unaffordable. The business model of factory farming, after all, is predicated on confining a lot of animals in small spaces, and cage-free factory farms remain factory farms through and through. And it’s not even clear that removing hens from cages improves their welfare. Broilers are already cage-free and suffer horribly in confined barns, including because they are hurt by other birds as they try to jockey for space or establish pecking order. As animal scientists have noted, the design of the space matters more than whether it’s cage-free. And even then it’s uncertain that space—as opposed to the amount and quality of feed, access to water, and not having their beaks trimmed—is the deciding factor of improved animal welfare.
It might seem cynical to criticize consumers and animal rights activists for celebrating victories for animals. Pro-animal groups like the Humane Society of the United States wage comically asymmetric warfare against animal abuse, using whatever means at their disposal to challenge multibillion-dollar agribusiness corporations, and to appeal to the ethics of a public that, by and large, not only eats animals but scorns those who lobby for them. The HSUS, far and away the largest animal interest organization in the USA, has an annual revenue of $249 million and an operating budget of $200 million; People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the second-largest, spends $60 million a year. For comparison, the country’s biggest egg producer, Mississippi-based Cal-Maine Foods, raked in $1.3 billion last year. That these groups can build public support and pressure politicians to pass statewide changes in regulation in the face of massive lobbying from animal ag is a feat nothing short of herculean.
The bigger question, however, is whether going cage-free is enough and whether it can be an incremental step in making the food system kinder to animals. There is a long-standing debate in animal rights circles between so-called abolitionists and welfarists. The former argue that the end goal of pro-animal activism is something close to universal veganism and the end of animal agriculture; proponents of the latter argue that any win that improves the lives of animals is worth pursuing. The two groups are frequently at odds over tactics and political theories of change.
But we don’t need to take hard-line positions on animal rights to question the logic of pursuing incremental changes to animal production like going cage-free. Not only are the welfare benefits of cage-free farms questionable, but winning cage-free legislation is hard work. Currently, mostly due to the efforts of groups like HSUS, about 30 percent of the country’s egg-laying hens are free from cages. But of the country’s five biggest egg-producing states, only California, where voters are uniquely motivated to vote for animal welfare improvements, has cage-free legislation passed. (Utah isn’t even in the top 10 in terms of egg production capacity.) Winning similar victories in hard-line ag states like Iowa and Ohio will be harder. And it’s unclear whether winning cage-free commitments builds momentum for other wins. Even without such regulations, egg producers happily advertise cage-free eggs on cartons and charge premium prices for them. If groups like HSUS advertise cage-free as a major win for animals, many consumers may be placated that their eggs are humane, after all. Convincing them with future campaigns that that’s not actually the case might not work. And none of this addresses the myriad other harms of chicken agriculture, such as chick culling or the impacts on workers, the environment, and local communities.
The problem isn’t the cages: It’s the factory farming model itself. Any incremental reforms that allow factory farms to operate profitably and without significantly reducing their output don’t actually challenge this model. Think of it as an asymptote on a graph: a line you can approach but never quite reach. Even if groups like HSUS can keep winning incremental concessions, which might slightly improve individual animals’ lives, these will do little to fundamentally change how our food system treats the animals it produces or to stem the expansion of factory farms or meat and egg consumption. Call it the humane paradox: more animals suffering, but each one suffering slightly less.
We have yet to emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, but the scientific consensus is that the next pandemic will also likely be zoonotic in origin, quite possibly originating on poultry farms. Our animal-product-heavy food system is also straining environmental limits at a moment of accelerating ecological crisis. Sooner or later, Americans will have to confront the mess that is their agricultural system and the impact of their diets. This will require individual and political introspection and change, and it will require much bigger results than Utah delivered last Wednesday. Bill 147 is neither a victory nor a reason to feel better about eating eggs. If anything, it’s a reminder of the scale of the fight ahead.