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Free Birds

Free Birds
November 6, 2006

“Sunny side up, dash of salt, and cage-free, please." 

Just as campuses once banned non-union grapes or stocked Nicaraguan coffee, colleges are increasingly choosing cage-free eggs, responding to student activists’ appeals for socially conscious consumer choices and endorsing what they call a sustainable farming practice that gives chickens more room to roam. More than 100 college and university dining systems have jumped into the cage-free movement in the last few years , said Josh Balk, outreach coordinator for the Factory Farming Campaign at the Humane Society of the United States.

These colleges have eliminated or reduced the supply of traditional cage-produced eggs on campus in favor of supporting cage-free production, where each chicken in a cage-free barn typically has about 144 square inches or more to move compared to the standard 67 square inches available in cage production, according to egg industry data. Among the colleges that have made the switch are Dartmouth and Oberlin Colleges; Case Western Reserve, Georgetown, Princeton, Stanford, Tufts and Yale Universities; and the Universities of California at Berkeley, Iowa, New Hampshire, Rochester and Wisconsin at Madison, Balk said.

“Students, now more than ever before, are becoming aware of how their food reaches the cafeteria,” said Balk. “When students across the country discover that the eggs in their cafeteria come from birds confined in cages that are too small for them even to spread their wings, the students are eager to work with dining services for a more humane option.”

Dining service managers cited a variety of reasons for deciding to purchase the cage-free eggs, which are often significantly more expensive -- at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Delmar Crim, the culinary director, said the eggs cost an extra 40 percent. Among the reasons identified include the efforts of student activists, stated institutional concerns about animal welfare and environmental issues, and a desire to provide higher-quality, better-tasting products.

But a spokeswoman for the United Egg Producers, a trade association that represents the majority of American egg farmers, said that while the organization advocates the right for consumers to choose between cage-free and traditional cage-produced varieties, the campaign to go cage-free at colleges has been plagued by misinformation, with the concerns of a few student activists ultimately guiding consumption habits for the masses.

“The Humane Society of the United States unfortunately is putting out information to universities, to restaurants, to pretty much whomever they contact that cage production is inhumane and that cage-free is more humane. This is not the case,” said Diane Storey, a spokeswoman for the United Egg Producers, who said that birds can walk around and spread their wings in cages, and that images spread by the Humane Society are not representative of most modern cages. “Both systems are humane and ethical. We want consumers to have a choice and not feel bad about their choice.”

At the University of Iowa, students chose cage-free eggs after a successful trial run that started in the spring, deciding in October to put their money where their mouths are. The Associated Residence Halls, the student governing group for residential life, voted to support the continuing use of cage-free eggs on campus, a decision that will tack about $5 onto students’ annual room and board bills, said Steve Parrott, a university spokesman.

“That’s certainly not an unreasonable amount to ask for so many benefits,” said Will McBride, president of the university's  Farm Animal Welfare Network and a first-year dental student who spearheaded the student movement as an undergraduate. “Cage production is by far one of the cruelest forms of factory farming that is practiced today.”

At Tufts University, student activists collaborated with dining administrators to introduce cage-free products last year. Unlike other universities, which have paid heavily for the switch – Dartmouth is paying an extra $11,000 to fund cage-free shell eggs this year and would have spent more than $50,000 if the institution had gone entirely cage-free with its liquid eggs, too -- Patti Klos, Tufts's director of dining and business services, said the switch to cage-free liquid eggs has had a “miniscule” price impact, adding just $1,000 per year within an overall budget of $5 million.

“Our university has a commitment to sustainable practices. This is certainly a sustainable form of doing business,” Klos said, citing the environmental benefits of cage-free farms, which often have fewer hens and therefore produce less run-off.

Meanwhile, at Case Western, Crim, the culinary manager and an employee of Bon Appétit Management Company, a culinary service which contracts with universities and corporations and has made a commitment to phase in cage-free shell eggs by this month, said using the 40 percent more expensive cage-free eggs has actually ended up saving money because buying the better product encouraged employees to serve smaller portions and eliminate waste.

And at Dartmouth, David Newlove, associate director of dining services, said the cage-free eggs not only represent a more sustainable buying practice, but simply taste better – the unanimous winners in a blind taste test by dining service employees conducted last year.

But Jocie Antonelli, nutrition and safety manager at the University of Notre Dame, said that colleges shouldn’t be swayed by what everyone else is doing, but should instead look carefully at the merits of going cage-free at their particular institutions. After a group of students working on behalf of animal rights presented dining services with a petition in 2005, Antonelli and other members of a social responsibility committee examined the issue exhaustively, touring their current egg provider’s facility, visiting two cage-free farms and interviewing animal science professors from across the country.

They considered the question from a religious standpoint, a nutritional standpoint, a fiscal standpoint, a culinary standpoint and a sustainability standpoint -- questioning, for instance, whether it would be a good practice to truck eggs from the nearest cage-free facility, five hours away, rather than obtaining them from their current provider a comparatively short 45-minute ride away. A detailed analysis was presented to the student government association, which decided not to support a cage-free movement at Notre Dame, Antonelli said.

“We feel comfortable that our current egg provider is treating the hens very well,” Antonelli said, adding that she thinks people have the misconception that cage-free chickens enjoy sunlight and fresh air in front of freshly painted red barns, when oftentimes they are stuffed onto the floor of a long barn crammed with birds, scars from the establishment of a clear pecking order visible on their bodies. “On the surface, it seems like it’s very easy, ‘Well that’s the right thing to do.’ But when we looked into it, and factored all those points together, we decided that right now, we’re sticking with our provider.” Antonelli added that she wouldn’t advocate that any institution choose one option over another, but only that they investigate their options thoroughly.

The United Egg Producers argues that consumers have two equally good choices between cage-free and cage production eggs, especially since the establishment of a certification program based on scientific guidelines in 2002. The United Egg Producers' Storey said that about 85 percent of egg producers participate in the voluntary certification program, which stipulates in its guidelines that a caged hen should have from 67 to 86 square inches of usable space.

An egg industry publication that lists advantages for both types of production – 15 advantages for cage production, and just four for cage-free production – argues that cage production, while offering less space and not affording the hen the ability to choose a nesting spot, provides chickens with continuous access to clean feed and water, protects them from predators and disease, enhances egg production and “provides for better overall bird health and welfare.” About 97 to 98 percent of all eggs produced in the United States are produced through the cage production system, Storey said.

The Humane Society’s Balk criticized the United Egg Producers certification program, saying it allows for “some of the worst factory farm abuses.” Balk pointed to a 2003 ruling by the Better Business Bureau’s National Advertising Division determining that the former name of the certification program, “Animal Care Certified,” should be discontinued “because it conveys a message of humane treatment that does not accurately reflect the actual level of care provided under the certification program.”

The National Association of College & University Food Services does not offer its member organizations any particular advice regarding the decision to use cage-free eggs, instead opting to provide them with information and help them communicate with a network of their peers, the group’s spokeswoman, Jodi Smith, wrote in an e-mail. “What is right, let alone fiscally possible, at various campus dining locations across the U.S. varies by location, and is up to that individual university department, administration and student body.”

 

 

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