This article includes graphic images some readers may find disturbing.
Over the last decade, thanks to a cascade of undercover exposés of factory farms and slaughterhouses by animal rights activists, it has become increasingly difficult to ignore the horrors of industrial animal agriculture. Though it has received less attention than than the systematic torture of pigs and cows, perhaps no part of animal agriculture is more heinous than egg production, an industry in which hens are confined to excruciatingly small cages for the entirety of their tortured lives. As the Humane Society put it after an extensive investigation into the indescribable cruelties of this industry, “Perhaps the most abused farm animals, nearly 280 million laying hens in the United States are confined in barren wire battery cages so restrictive the birds can’t even spread their wings.”
As consumers have awoken to the barbaric conditions of the egg industry, they have begun to turn toward incrementally more humane alternatives, such as cage-free eggs, as well as truly humane options, such as eggs from pasture-raised hens at places like Vital Farms.
The market, as they say, is speaking. As Americans become more educated about the morally repellent practices of this industry, they are increasingly refusing to reward barbaric practices by buying eggs that are the byproduct of industrial torture.
But in response, the powerful poultry industry — which long invoked principles of the “free market” to justify their torture-derived products being available to consumers — have now reversed course. With consumers choosing more humane egg products, lobbyists for the poultry industry are pushing laws that would force stores to carry their products even if doing so offends their moral sensibilities and ethical judgments.
In Iowa, the nation’s biggest egg-producing state, lawmakers, at the behest of the poultry lobby, are making their most brazen attempt yet to fight the tides of change: simply making it a legal requirement for grocery stores to carry inhumanely produced eggs. A new bill in the Iowa state legislature, overwhelmingly passed by the Iowa House of Representatives on Monday by a vote of 81-17, would force any Iowa grocery store that participates in the Women, Infants and Children federal food assistance program and sells what the bill refers to as “specialty eggs” to also stock “conventional eggs.” “Specialty eggs” are cage-free eggs, free-range eggs, or “enriched colony cage” eggs — eggs produced in larger cages with perches and other amenities in them. “Conventional eggs” are eggs from hens confined in battery cages.
The bill’s supporters frame the measure as a consumer choice issue, arguing that the most economically destitute Iowans deserve access to lower priced eggs. Animal welfare advocates view the motivation differently.
“These bills are designed to keep a dying industry afloat that consumers no longer want to support,” said Cody Carlson, an attorney at Mercy for Animals. “This is an industry that refuses to change in any meaningful way.”
In 2010, Carlson worked at two industrial egg farms in Iowa, covertly documenting the inhumane practices employed in egg production as an undercover investigator. He and his co-workers, he told The Intercept, would walk down vast rows of battery cages looking for mummified bird corpses stuck to the floors. The cages were about the size of a microwave, with seven to 10 hens crammed into each one. The floors were made of an abrasive wire mesh, so when birds died — often from thirst or starvation after their confinement had debilitated their muscles and bones, rendering them paralyzed — the live hens would stand on top of the decaying carcasses to give their feet some relief. Workers like Carlson were responsible for removing the trampled carcasses.
“We called it ‘pulling carpets,’” he said.
“It was common at the places I worked to find hens whose wings, legs, necks, and prolapsed ova became caught in the wires, condemning them to excruciating, prolonged deaths by dehydration or trampling by their cage-mates,” Carlson told The Intercept in an email. The “ova” that he refers to is the chicken equivalent of a uterus, which commonly prolapses because they are bred to produce so many eggs. “When I pointed this out to my supervisor and offered to help untangle some of the hens, I was told this wasn’t our job and should wait until they died to remove them,” Carlson added.
The cages Carlson worked among were stacked 12 feet high and extended for 200 yards. The hens were so tightly packed that each one had less floor space than the surface of an iPad upon which to spend her entire life. They couldn’t spread their wings, and by the time they were a year old, “they are raw and featherless from rubbing up against each other and the cage wires,” Carlson noted. He added:
With nothing to do all day, the birds would naturally begin pecking each other out of boredom. Rather than alleviate their stress by giving them more space, the industry’s response is to ‘debeak’ them, painfully severing the ends of their beaks (which are filled with nerve endings) with a hot iron. With this procedure, they still go mad from mental and physical deprivation, but lack the ability to act out.
Because male chickens don’t lay eggs and aren’t bred to grow as fast as broiler hens, they are useless to the industry. Typically, they are tossed into a machine that grinds them alive or are tossed into a large plastic bag where they are left to suffocate.
The two facilities Carlson worked in were not marginal, fly-by-night operations; they were owned by two of the biggest egg producers in the country. The conditions he witnessed on a daily basis are typical of the industry.
It would be a challenge to purposely design torture methods that would inflict more pain and suffering on hens than those used at the largest industrial egg factories in the U.S. This has been one of the most challenging issues of animal cruelty to arouse public concern, because chickens are commonly perceived to be less intelligent and less emotionally complex than dogs, pigs, or even cows, making it somehow more morally justified, or at least less personally painful, to inflict excruciating pain on them for life. Precisely for that reason, the standard practices at egg farms are among the most savage and torturous in the animal farm industry.
One undercover video produced by Mercy for Animals revealed such shocking images that the company, Eggland’s Best, announced it was “setting a goal of working with our suppliers and customers to transition to 100 percent cage-free eggs by 2025,” and claimed it “has been at the forefront of egg industry best practices in a number of areas, including food safety, bird health, animal welfare, and 3rd party audit requirements.”
Despite some recent, isolated reforms, severe abuses throughout the industry remain commonplace, even as a full ban on battery cages for egg-laying hens took effect in the European Union in 2012. The Humane Society reports that “the vast majority of egg-laying hens in the United States are confined in battery cages.”
“There is no more tortured farm animal than a hen in a cage,” said Matthew O’Hayer, the founder of Vital Farms, a producer of certified humane, pasture-raised eggs. “If you visit a caged operation, there’s a chance you’ll never eat another egg in your life.”
Undercover investigators like Carlson have helped to bring this reality to consumers, creating a market for more humane alternatives and an appetite among voters for reform.
In 2008, California voters approved the nation’s first law specifically reforming conditions for hens in the egg industry. The ballot initiative, Proposition 2, passed in a landslide, and it prohibited the state’s egg producers from confining hens in enclosures too small to allow them to turn around, stand up, lie down, and stretch their limbs. The initiative did the same for pregnant sows and veal calves.
Before the measure went into effect in 2015, egg-laying hens in California were typically crammed into battery cages exactly like the ones Carlson worked with in Iowa. The new standards provided a modicum of relief to millions of California hens.
The expenses required to comply with the new regulations, however, put the state’s egg farmers at a competitive disadvantage with out-of-state producers that sold their eggs in California stores. So the following year, to level the playing field, the California legislature adopted a new law that extended those standards to all eggs sold in the state, regardless of whether they were laid in a California facility or shipped from another state. Together, the ballot initiative and its successor bill constituted the codification of a new consumer awareness of the conditions that prevail in industrial egg production, and a new public willingness to compel producers to adopt more humane practices.
Since Prop 2’s passage, elected officials in Iowa and other egg-producing states have been vigorously fighting to undercut those laws in order to preserve access to California’s massive consumer market for their own egg producers — without requiring them to invest in better conditions for their hens. In 2013, Iowa’s Republican Rep. Steve King proposed an amendment to the federal Farm Bill that would have prevented any state from imposing standards on the production of agricultural goods created in another state — a measure explicitly aimed at nullifying the standards set by California’s Prop 2. The amendment failed.
In 2016, Iowa’s governor, along with the attorneys general of five other states, sued California’s then-State Attorney General Kamala Harris and the Humane Society, seeking to block enforcement of Prop 2. The suit was dismissed at the district court level and on appeal, and the Supreme Court declined to hear it.
These successes have spurred advocates for ending animal cruelty to propose legislation for even more humane conditions. California’s legislators are now proposing to expand Prop 2’s minimum cage size yet further, and activists are pushing a new California ballot initiative that would require the state’s entire industry to go cage-free.
As the egg industry failed in its effort to undermine the voters’ will in California, the expanding national market for at least marginally more ethical eggs prompted 100 grocery store chains and dozens of chain restaurants and food manufacturers — Nestlé, McDonald’s, and Walmart among them — to pledge to abandon caged eggs over the next decade. This is an important development because these outlets collectively comprise 70 percent of consumer demand in the United States.
Caged egg producers and their political allies, running short on options to stem the contraction of the market for caged eggs, are now resorting to extreme measures, including the outright abandonment of the free-market principles they once heralded as sacrosanct. In Iowa, the strategy of these corporations now rests on overriding the demands of the market and empowering the government to dictate to stores what they must sell — in particular, barring them from refusing to sell eggs that are the products of grotesque cruelty.
It’s an ironic position, because this kind of intervention in the private sector was exactly what politicians like King accused the state of California of doing with the passage of Prop 2. O’Hayer, the Vital Farms founder, explained that when California voters adopted the animal rights measure, “the response was that we should let consumers make their own choices, and you can’t boss them around.” Now that consumers are choosing humane treatment of hens, that free-market principle has been kicked to the curb.
“It’s extremely hypocritical that Iowa’s factory farmers have pretended for a long time to care about protecting the free market,” said Chris Holbein of the Humane Society, “because now that the free market is turning against them and in favor of more responsible producers that are trying to do the right thing for consumers and animals, the factory producers want the government to force grocery stores to sell a product that is both unsafe and unethical.”
Becky Higgins, a small poultry farmer in Iowa, explained in the Des Moines Register that the bill just passed by the Iowa House will harm small farmers, the environment, consumer choice, consumer health, and humane treatment of animals — essentially, everyone except big industrial agriculture to which Iowa state legislators are subservient:
Our state leaders are poised to consider legislation that would hurt Iowa family farmers like myself and consumers who support farming practices that are sustainable, humane and ethical. … These factory farms harm not only the animals, but also the environment and the viability of our rural communities. As a proud Iowa egg producer and small sustainable and traditional family farmer, I know firsthand just how harmful industrial animal agriculture has been to the Iowa way of life.
Now, disastrous bills are being discreetly and quickly moved through the Iowa Legislature. Sponsored by lawmakers beholden to corporate agribusiness interests, this legislation would force most grocery stores to sell eggs from hens cruelly confined in tiny, barren battery cages. A growing number of farmers like myself have dedicated their lives to raising the standard of care for our animals and employees, while producing safe, wholesome products. Like me, many of my fellow farmers across the state have converted to cage-free systems, and others opted to never use cages from the beginning. Cage-free production is more humane, better for the environment, and produces a safer, tastier, healthier egg. …
In addition to supporting the continued use of inhumane battery cages, these dangerous bills will also increase food safety risks for Iowa families. Extensive research has shown higher rates of the harmful bacteria salmonella in eggs from caged hens versus eggs from cage-free hens. The stressful living conditions and inability of caged hens to move lowers their immune systems, making the transfer of disease more likely. A major industry trade publication, Poultry World, wrote that “salmonella thrives in cage housing.” If the industry itself admits battery cage eggs are more dangerous, why on earth would they knowingly subject Iowa families to higher food safety risks?
For as long as I can remember, industrial animal agriculture has been trying to stop any regulation of extreme cruelty by saying that the “free market should decide,” yet now that the free market is rejecting the worst forms of factory farming practices, industrial agribusinesses is demanding that the government bail them out and take a share of the market away from more humane and responsible farmers.
The government has no place mandating that grocers must sell a product that family farmers, businesses and consumers reject.
Neither the bill’s legislative sponsors nor the Iowa Poultry Association responded to requests for comment.
Animal rights activists have succeeded in making greater sectors of the public aware of, and repelled by, the extreme cruelty and barbarism of industrial farming corporations in the U.S. But these corporations still wield one last weapon, and it is a potent one: the ability to use their financial muscle and lobbying power to dictate laws, particularly in farming states. Their latest ploy demonstrates how desperate they have become — but also how powerful they remain.
Consumers have their own power: their refusal to reward industrial farms and corporations for imposing gratuitous and incomprehensible suffering on living beings by purchasing their products. That is now one of the primary fronts animal rights activists view as a key to ensuring more humane treatment for animals in the U.S. and abroad.