Which Came First? The Chicken or the Cage?

Posted on January 26, 2012


I hate to admit it but I rarely think about where my food comes from. Do you?

The lone vegetarian in the Sisyphus household became one for moral reasons. Veggie-Sisyphus disliked the idea of eating something that had feelings.  Even then, I didn’t think about where my meat, poultry or fish came from.  The food was neatly displayed at my grocery store and all I had to do was pick it up, season it and pop it into the oven. It’s like it was never alive. I just ate it.

I thought even less about the vegetables.

Over the last few years I’ve become more aware of where my food comes from. I know that one pound of ground beef  from my local grocery store contains meat (and other stuff) from 1000 different cows and that the cows were given sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics to make them fatter. I know that my chicken was cultivated to sport larger breasts to the point that it was probably unable to walk prior to slaughtering. Even the fish are grain-fed.

Pesticides aside, the vegetables are fertilized to the point they aren’t as nutritious as they were 40 years ago.

I know that as more people become aware of how meat, poultry, fish and vegetables are factory farmed, they will demand a different system, one that is more humane and doesn’t sacrifice nutrition or health. The factory farms will be forced to change. It’s only a matter of time.

But they will fight it. Consumers will too. The industry will want the freedom to maximize profits and consumers will want cheap food. Both sides are justified.

I was encouraged today when I read about the egg industry in this NPR story. To summarize, California passed a law in 2008 requiring chickens be given room to standup, lie down and extend their limbs by 2015. The law was partly in response to illness outbreaks resulting from chickens being crammed into tiny cages. A few other states followed suit. The industry realized it didn’t know how best to comply with the law, especially if each state had its own rules. Did it mean the chickens had to be cage-free? There were no specifications. Like most things government-oriented, it was confusing at best. And nobody could provide guidance.

So Egg Producers United (representing 95% of producers) asked to meet with an unlikely ally, the Humane Society of the U.S., to figure out how to proceed.  (The Humane Society is the group that got the proposition to pass in the first place!) Together, the two groups created new legislation giving producers 15 years to phase out standard cages in lieu of “enriched” ones similarly being used in Europe. One producer estimates the added cost at one cent per egg. For chickens to lay salmonella-free eggs (and to be happier) it would cost about 12 cents extra per carton.

Guess who had a problem with it?