The Ugly Omelet: Hard-Cracked Realities of the Egg Industry
Yesterday, a disturbing video landed in my inbox from Mercy for Animals (MFA), an animal-rights organization. Shot with a hidden camera by an undercover worker at Hy-Line Hatchery in Spencer, Iowa, (the largest hatchery for egg-laying breed chicks in the US), the footage shows thousands of tiny baby chicks - all males - being ground up alive. Sadly, this is standard industry practice and considered humane by several regulatory agencies.
Male chicks are targeted because they don't lay eggs and don't grow big enough to produce meat so ... off they go. At the Hy-Line Hatchery, 150,000 male chicks are ground up every day - 130 million a year. This daily butchering is just business-as-usual to get those cheap eggs to market. Exhibit A:
Average price of a dozen eggs in 2009 - $2.89.
Average price of a dozen organic eggs in 2009 - $4.89.
"Since the undercover video by Mercy For Animals, a vegan advocacy and animal rights organization, was made public, many have expressed shock that male chicks, considered non-profitable to the egg industry, are killed shortly after hatching. The practice, however, is not news within the agricultural industry where 'instantaneous euthanasia' is carried out daily. Rural experts contend that most Americans are too far removed from family farming, much less the agricultural industry, to know and/or understand why certain practices which appear cruel are continued."
--Lynda Waddington, Iowa Independent
The video also shows a debeaking machine where surviving female chicks are inserted, dangling by their beaks, into a laser cutter where burns are inflicted to make the beak fall off in a week. Now that the video has made the rounds, feathers are flying.
While I knew intellectually that this type of thing went on, seeing it on film is a whole other matter. I couldn't get over how the workers roughly handled the baby chicks like they were apples or potatoes. There is a specific position called a "sexer" that separates the boys from the girls - flipping the boys (I assume) by their heads into a giant metal chute. I'm sorry, but if you can't empathize with a newborn baby - a baby anything - then I have to assume a bit of your soul has died somewhere along the way. The video did not make me proud of my species, to put it lightly.
But it does no good to demonize the workers, who are merely doing a job to provide for their own families. Nor does it help to crucify the egg producers who are in the business of providing what the market (me, you and that guy over there) demand: Cheap eggs. This is the ugly side of corporate agriculture and .... actually, I have yet to find a pretty side.
Since the video's release, an independent audit commissioned by the corporate owners of the Spencer hatchery has concluded that some of the practices depicted by an undercover video are, in fact, not standard operating procedure and are in violation of the company’s animal welfare policy. The (nameless) auditor's concluding statement:
"In conclusion, I am impressed with the commitment to animal care by Hy-Line and its employees here in Iowa. The equipment, practices and handling of chicks at the Hy-Line hatchery in Spencer, Iowa are consistent with customary industry husbandry practices and exceed animal welfare standards in a number of areas.
However, these independent audits confirm that some of the practices at our Spencer, Iowa facility depicted in the undercover video did not reflect the standard operating procedures of our company and are in direct violation of our animal welfare policy. One scene in the video depicted a bypass of the instantaneous euthanasia process and was a direct and clear violation of both the authorized animal handling procedures and our welfare policies."
So, while the industry deals with being naked and exposed, what can consumers do on our end? As Americans, we all know that money talks. What are our options here?
#1- Go Vegan: While I get lots of help from my own garden, the amazing SusanV, Trader Joe's Vegan Trail Mix cookies and Cafe Gratitude - I can't see myself taking this road until I fully conquer the vegetarian thing. If you are looking for info, check out GoVeg - a fantastic resource. I'm always surprised how many yummy options there are.
#2 - Know Your Egg Source: Next time you pick up some eggs, try reading beyond the price and check out the label. Where did the eggs come from? Organic? Cage-free? Once you determine the company, call or email them asking about the hatchery source. You might find, as egg sleuth Beth Terry did, that just because you are buying something labeled "humane" does not mean you don't have beak blood on your hands. Ask questions. I've started doing this already and there's a lot of squirming going on - a healthy sign.
"What I learned is that Glaum Ranch doesn't engage in this practice because it doesn't hatch its own eggs. In fact, few egg producers do. They buy their eggs from pullet producers which buy their eggs from hatcheries. Which means that humane egg producers may be inadvertently supporting this practice through the chicks they buy!"
--Beth Terry, FakePlasticFish
#3 - Write a letter: Further along in her egg adventures, Beth suggests writing a letter to the Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack - who is a pretty cool open-minded guy, from what I hear:
Honorable Tom Vilsack
U.S. Department of Agriculture
Room 200-A The Whittenberg Building
Washington, DC 20250
Dear Mr. Secretary:
I am appalled by the practice of live male chick maceration that is routinely practiced in hatcheries. There is promising research on sexing embryos which would eliminate the current methods of male chick euthanasia. The USDA can help end this inhumane practice by putting funds toward research into sexing embryos. I would like to see this procedure developed as soon as possible to end the suffering and waste created by the painful destruction of so many live birds.
Feel free to follow Beth's lead on this, dovetailing on her suggestion or offering up your own.
Meanwhile, MFA has been writing letters of its own and asked the nation's top 50 grocery chains to post a label on their egg packages stating: "WARNING: Male chicks are ground-up alive by the egg industry."
Unfortunately, the wording makes it sound as if there are health risks to the product when this is not the issue at all. However, MFA's letter by Executive Director Nathan Runkle makes the case for humane handling. An excerpt:
"The violence that you will see is standard and acceptable within the egg industry, and consumers have a right to know about this cruelty so that they can make informed and compassionate purchasing decisions ...Chickens' cognitive nervous systems are fully developed at the time of hatching, as a fact of neurophysiology, the young chicks are likely suffering extreme pain as they are being cut up alive by the grinder blades. Yet, the public has been kept in the dark by the egg industry about its painful disposal of male chicks. If egg producers threw, mutilated, and ground up puppies or kittens in the manner that they do baby chicks, they could prosecuted for cruelty to animals."
(You might recall that the issue was widely explored last November when Californians overwhelmingly passed Prop. 2, the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act, an animal welfare measure that polices humane issues in the state's agribusiness.)
We all have our conscious to deal with on this but at the very least, make the effort to know where your food comes from and try to understand the long and often sordid road it takes to your plate. It's a real eye opener.
Mark Hawthorne runs a terrific blog (well-written, sane, resourceful) over at Striking The Roots, which follows animal activism around the world:
"One of the agribusiness cruelties that has always made me shudder is the practice of killing newborn male chicks, whom egg producers deem as having no monetary value. Each year in the US, 200 million male chicks are killed shortly after hatching, and many of these birds are ground up in large machines called macerators while still alive. Taking these innocent babies, fresh from their eggs and searching for their mothers, and subjecting them to such a callous execution is one of the dirty little secrets of agribiz."
Meanwhile, Reenee, over at Hasta Los Gatos Quieren Zapatos, isn't exactly won over by Runkle's arguments:
"People are going to eat eggs, no matter what. If Runkle doesn't want to eat them, then so be it, but he has no right to try to bully people into refusing eggs with scare tactics. He's as bad as those right wingnuts with their bullshit tactics."
Meet Kelly, an omnivore who blogs at How My Garden Grows, who could not even bring herself to watch the actual video but makes a great point about wasted food:
"I am not a vegetarian, nor will I ever be. (Though sometimes I want to be.) I read this and wanted to post it, I have read many horrific scenarios about the chicken industry. As a result I try to make better decisions as to where my food comes from, but this I was unaware of. Please read and form your own opinions. Mine are that I am so thankful I can buy eggs from local farms, that we as a human race are the most cruel creatures on earth, and that there are people dying from starvation around the world and we grind up chicks like unwanted yard waste because when pumped with artificial growth hormones they don't grow fast enough. Oh, and these ground up chicks are probably then fed to their own species. Nice."