Au Bon Pain, the bakery and café chain headquartered in Boston, recently announced that it would completely eliminate eggs from hens raised in battery cages and pork from pigs bred in gestation crates from its U.S. supply chain by 2017. The move, along with similar measures announced by prominent companies like McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, and Costco, points to the increasing success of consumer activism in bringing about positive, ethical change and the growing success of the food movement.
Battery cages that house birds in less space than a sheet of paper and gestation crates so small that the sows cannot even turn around are unnecessarily cruel. In both cases, the severe lack of space causes sores, stress, and disease in the animals, making them among the most inhumane practices in factory farming. These intensive confinement systems are so inhumane that they have been banned in a growing number of U.S. states and European nations (in the case of battery cages, in the entire European Union). Additionally, factory farming systems like battery cages and gestation crates are documented environmental hazards. Eliminating the cramped conditions may also enhance food safety, a consideration that has prompted prominent consumer advocacy groups like the Center for Food Safety to oppose battery cages and gestation crates.
Many food retailers such as Wal-Mart, Safeway, and Trader Joe’s have also announced that they will transition to cage-free eggs. Harvard transitioned to 100 percent cage-free eggs in 2011, but unfortunately, no efforts to eliminate pork raised in gestation crates from its dining menus have been made. In addition, our own Cambridge City Council unanimously passed a resolution calling on all restaurants in the city to switch to cage-free eggs in 2007. These reforms signal a rapid increase in much-needed consumer attention to the ethics of food production in an era of mass industrialization. In the absence of meaningful regulation from our nation’s notoriously scant federal animal welfare laws, we encourage more businesses, both in the Boston area and at large, to follow suit and end their financial support of unethical farming practices.
While critics may contend that movements for cage-free eggs and gestation crate-free pork are needlessly costly, research has been inconclusive on the economics of gestation crates. In addition, the increased consumer preference for humanely produced foods will draw more suppliers, attracted by the allure of profitability, that will help to decrease current prices. Most compellingly, the agriculture industry cannot justifiably employ ethically and environmentally indefensible practices in pursuit of additional profit. ABP’s reforms are well worth the small additional costs of their implementation.
The writing is on the wall for companies and suppliers still relying on battery cages and gestation crates. The impact of the food movement is accelerating, and increasing pressure will be placed on businesses to comply with growing consumer demands for ethically sourced food. If not from their own sense of responsibility, businesses should move toward humane treatment of animals in adherence to the age-old maxim: The customer is always right.