The first thing I heard from the darkness was a scream. “Are there children in here?” I thought. It sounded like a crying baby.
But our lights showed us the source. Hens across the barn were shrieking as they were being attacked. Many ― a few dozen, according to the farm’s own records ― would not survive the night. In the unnatural conditions on this Costco cage-free egg farm, they would literally be eaten alive.
As hundreds of major retailers move towards cage-free, many in the industry have been celebrating a humane future for animals. But as lead investigator of the Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) Open Rescue Network, I have a different reaction: horror. Because as you peel back the marketing, you see cage-free is not all it’s cracked up to be.
WARNING: The video below shows graphic content including injured and deceased chickens. It may be disturbing to some viewers.
Cannibalism is the first dark secret of cage-free egg farming. One study showed rates of cannibalism increasing by 3000% on cage-free farms, and it’s a horrible way to die. The cloaca of a hen (equivalent to a human vagina) is targeted because it is soft, fleshy, and covered with egg fluids. Driven insane by crowding, the birds attack this weak point, pulling out internal organs in the process. The victims of such attacks die, piece by piece. At the Costco farm, I watched as one bird, bloodied and unable to walk, dragged her body across a manure pile in a desperate attempt to flee. Despite our team’s efforts, this little hen could not be saved.
But cannibalism is just the tip of the iceberg. In everything from air quality to bone fractures, hens often do much worse under cage-free. Three times as many hens die prematurely. If this shocking increase in mortality occurred in a human prison, it would lead to criminal charges against the warden.
The basic problem for the hens is this: cage-free farms, like caged farms, squeeze birds into a space about the size of a piece of printer paper. Imagine living your entire life in a small shower. Now imagine living your entire life in the same amount of space, but with thousands of insane strangers crowding around you. This is the choice between caged and cage-free. Neither option is even remotely humane.
Cage-free is not just bad for the animals, though; it’s also driving up profits for industry. Bloomberg reports that the average consumer is willing to pay more than double the amount for a dozen cage-free eggs, a premium of $2 per dozen eggs. But costs only increase by around 15 cents per dozen for cage-free eggs. If we switched all eggs to cage-free today at these prices, industry profits would increase by $7 billion.
Industry growth fueled by cage-free is not just speculative. In the year after a massive industry shift to cage-free, the American Egg Board is projecting a 5% increase in per capita egg consumption. Premium pricing is leading to greater investments in egg production. This means millions more birds may now suffer in the nightmarish conditions of modern egg farms. Indeed, the very Costco farm we investigated recently secured $1 million in financing to expand their cage-free egg operations.
The solution to the problem is to change, not corporate practices, but the incentive systems underlying those practices. Corporations operate in a world where shareholders demand earnings, where animals are legal “things” that help create those earnings, and where meaningful regulations on turning “animals” into “earnings” are nonexistent. It is not a surprise, then, that (not unlike the financial industry) voluntary reforms are constantly undermined. Indeed, under the present system, corporations are legally required to evade and undermine; companies that try to do the right thing will be punished by the market for taking on unnecessary costs.
That is exactly what is happening with cage-free. Corporations are finding ingenious ways to cram more birds into an already tiny space. Until the system changes ― by giving animals some semblance of legal rights ― these corporate abuses will continue.
True progress for animals, then, can’t depend on corporations like Costco. It will come the same way other great rights movements have made progress: by changing our political system. And while the notion of a constitutional bill of rights for animals might seem fanciful, so too did gay marriage a generation ago, or women’s suffrage at the turn of the 20th century. Yet look at where we are today.
In short, let’s “free the hens,” as Bill Maher so nicely put it to Costco last year. But freedom for animals won’t come from going cage-free. It will come when we enshrine their freedom, dignity, and even personhood as a basic legal right.
Disturbed by what you’ve read? Ask Costco to take action to stop this cruelty!