Battery hens, as hens raised in small cages are called, are amongst the worst abused animals in modern agriculture. Exempted from the federal Animal Welfare Act, they are packed in tiers of wire cages, sometimes with less space to move about than a letter-sized piece of paper.
Organic cage-free eggs present a viable alternative. Hens raised on cage-free farms can roam in barns and yards as the climate permits, nesting and running almost as they would in the wild. Most of the organic farms that raise them don’t use pesticides or herbicides, reducing run-off and minimizing their environmental footprint.
Nationally, cage-free eggs are taking off. Over 100 American universities, including Yale, Princeton, Georgetown, Berkeley, and Stanford, have now made a full or partial switch to cage-free eggs. Finagle-a-Bagel and Bon Appetit both stopped using caged eggs, while AOL and Google have now made the switch in their staff cafeterias.
Critics of cage-free eggs argue that the costs are unjustified. Harvard University Dining Services (HUDS) is already cash-strapped, unable to extend dining hall hours or to routinely offer fair-trade bananas. Annenberg hall uses eightgallons of eggs a day; better, critics argue, to address dining essentials before paying to switch to costlier eggs.
Yet HUDS has a duty to maintain ethical and environmental standards, even at a cost. HUDS has recognized this by launching the Food Literacy Project, by partnering with community organizations to provide food for the homeless, and by increasing the use of eco-friendly food packaging and transportation.
Moreover, the projected costs are manageable. A report published by the Humane Society of the United States puts the cost of cage-free egg production at 8 to 24 percent more than battery egg production, which translates to three to 12 cents extra per dozen eggs.
The extra dollars would cause a significant change; HUDS’s egg demand makes it responsible for its supplier, Kreider Eggs, using an entire football-length row of cages stacked four high. The environmental costs are immense: the sheer density of birds at such operations produces large quantities of ammonia that pollute the surrounding air and water. Environmental organizations from the Sierra Club to the National Environmental Trust have condemned battery cage farming.
Cage-free farms, by contrast, are smaller and spread out to reduce environmental impact. The cage-free farm that HUDS has said it would use, Pete & Gerry’s, is U.S. Department of Agiculture Organic Approved, meaning that it does not use irradiated materials or genetically modified organisms, and only feeds 100 percent organic feed to its hens. Furthermore, the new facility would be closer to Cambridge, reducing transport carbon emissions and naturally extending HUDS’s existing “buy local” campaign.
And students may even notice a taste improvement. Dartmouth College switched to Pete & Gerry’s cage-free eggs in part after a blind taste test found that students preferred their flavor over that of caged eggs.
HUDS has shown a strong commitment to increasing healthy meal options and promoting sustainable food production. In the coming weeks it has the opportunity to extend that commitment to environmentally friendly and humane animal care. We urge it do so, and beat the EU to adopting completely cage-free eggs.