Earlier this week HSUS released undercover footage from Hillandale Farms, an egg producer who supplies eggs to Costco. The footage shows images of hens jammed so tightly into cages that they have no room to move, often have to stand on one another, and sometimes even stand on top of dead or injured birds. Their bodies have feather loss and painful-looking skin infections. You can see dead hens on the floor and piled into bins.
Hillandale responded by bringing in outside inspectors to assess the situation and releasing a statement indicating this was an isolated incident. Late yesterday, Costco announced that it would keep Hillandale eggs on their shelves, believing that the incident truly was a one-time issue.
Undercover footage too often leads to finger pointing in multiple directions. Who's to blame? The worker? The farmer? The corporate buyer? Is it a widespread problem? An isolated incident? Did the animal advocates get it all wrong? It's an all-too-familiar scene that reignites a larger question of how the animals that produce our food are being treated. Even if the severity of the problem at Hillandale was truly isolated, we must ask the question: what's going on in all the other barns across America?
Roughly 95 percent of all eggs produced in the US come from conventional egg farms. This system was developed decades ago, with a focus on producing large quantities of food at a cost consumers can afford. To do so, hens are kept in battery cages, which means a lot of hens kept in a little space. In short, operation costs are low and output is high. Essentially, a standard business model. These are systems designed for efficiency, not animal welfare. Farmers, as well as their corporate buyers, don't intend to harm laying hens. But efficiency unintentionally results in severely compromising the welfare of hens.
The times have changed. Today we have a better understanding of animals as sentient beings, and while there are minimal laws that regulate care for animals used in food production in the US, the science and, let's face it, ethics should guide the way. Conventional egg farming, which uses 280 million (280 million!) hens annually, keeps six to eight hens in one cage for their entire life. If you're thinking that those must be pretty big cages, I have some bad news: they're not. These battery cages are so small that each hen has the space equivalent of an iPad. On top of that, most barns hold 250,000 to 500,000 hens per barn. Rows of cages are stacked one on top of the other, keeping hens confined so tightly that they cannot even spread their wings, let alone fly. Dust bathing, perching, and nesting, all natural behaviors of hens, are considered a luxury. It's not hard to understand the kind of stress this environment causes for animals.
We have to change this reality. Cheap and efficient food production can no longer be the answer when we have the proof that alternatives work just as well. Cage-free, free-range, and organic egg facilities can be used to produce enough eggs efficiently while also valuing the welfare of birds. While the cost of these eggs is currently higher than conventional eggs, as more and more producers switch to cage-free production methods, the cost will come down.
While the recent video shows some of the worst conditions experienced by hens, the fact remains that in the majority of barns across America, hens are confined to similar or only slightly better conditions. This should no longer be a conversation about efficiency alone, but about supporting and building systems that prioritize animal welfare, too. As consumers, we have the responsibility to speak up for hens; and as a business, Costco has an opportunity to show leadership by making hen welfare a priority for their business.