In 1999, the European Union (EU) famously announced a ban on battery cages…effective January 2012. If not for the almost unrivaled animal cruelty involved in egg production, the 13-year phase-out would be worthy of an SNL skit. But even given this absurd period of time, 13 nations were not in compliance at the beginning of this year. As an EU Council “Directive,” implementation and enforcement fall exclusively to each of the 27 member nations, not through any EU agency. So what happens when some, almost half in this case, blatantly flout the “law”? Who, besides animal rights organizations, is watching? But more importantly, is the ban a cause for celebration?
While EU Council Directive 1999/74/EC will ostensibly eliminate one of the most poignant symbols of ruthless farming, it still allows for concentrated production in the form of “enriched” cages, an obscene euphemism from modern agribusiness. The enrichment comes from marginally more space per hen (maybe a piece of paper and a half), a perch, a nest box, and a litter area for scratching (the last three shared by multiple hens). But the privations remain: wire mesh floors resulting in deformities, extreme confinement with no fresh air or warm sunshine, a frustrating denial of natural instincts like dust-bathing, stress-induced aggression, etc.. Does this represent praiseworthy progress?
There are, welfare advocates cheerfully report, some countries already moving away from the enriched cages and toward the twin holy grails of the humane movement: cage-free and free-range. But here again, a keen if not cynical eye must be cast. What most of the public does not know, by design I’m sure, is that there are no clear and consistent definitions of these oft-used terms. Thousands of distressed hens crammed into a cacophonous, chaotic barn technically translates to cage-free, while limited access to an unstimulating, drab landscape would qualify as free-range. Even in the best facilities, male chicks are generally destroyed at birth and the spent hens, no longer able to churn out the goods, are sent to slaughter between 12 and 18 months.
Debating the relative merits of various systems, however, ignores the larger, greater question of whether or not more humane legislation, well-intentioned though it may be, is in the long-term best interests of farm animals. It is at least possible and perhaps, as strict abolitionists will argue, probable that egg consumption is correlated with supposed welfare improvements. An increasingly aware public, educated by a generation of camera-wielding activists, enjoys a guilt-relief when no less than the venerable Peter Singer heralds Europe’s “ethical eggs.” And giant corporations are savvy enough to understand how to appease concerned consumers with phrases like enriched, cage-free, and free-range while remaining immensely profitable. Indeed, the two are logically linked.
To the businesses charged with meeting demand, compassion is not part of the equation; the animals, truth be told, are simple widgets. But herein lies the conflict. We know with certitude that the animal mind is far more complex, more intelligent (including the supposedly dumb bird) than mankind ever thought possible; we are light years from the dawn of livestock. And more to the point, the very existence of humane legislation (Animal Welfare Act, Humane Slaughter Act, this ban) formally acknowledges that the animals we use can (and do) suffer. So, the government offers toothless remedies to soothe the collective conscience, and life on the farm continues, in practical terms, as was.
Just as it was morally unjustifiable for some men to force other men to pick their cotton, so too is the coerced harvesting of a hen’s reproductive vessel, all because some archaic recipe calls for three eggs. And when one wades through the illusory rhetoric (“benevolent slaveholder,” enriched cages, the natural order of things) a basic and timeless truth emerges: Exploitation of a fellow sentient being, which necessarily involves suffering of some sort, is inherently wrong, no matter the being, no matter the means.