HEN'S ADVOCATE: Reasa Haggard, a third-year law student at ASU, is president of the Student Animal Legal Defense Organization, which is trying to persuade university officials to serve cage-free eggs on campus.

Group squawks over eggs at ASU
By Emily Gersema
July 9, 2005

Student activists at Arizona State University are raising a flap over the eggs they’re served in campus dining halls, asking ASU to serve eggs laid by cagefree hens instead of caged birds.

University campuses are the latest backdrop for the battle over animal welfare protections.

The Humane Society of the United States, a Washington, D.C., animal rights organization, hatched a national campaign this year to persuade universities to buy eggs from producers that raise their chickens outside of compact cages known as "battery cages" standard to much of the U.S. egg industry.

So far, six universities have signed on, including the University of Arizona, which will begin this fall serving eggs produced by chickens raised on farms with room to roam.

ASU could be next. The campus’ Student Animal Legal Defense Organization is trying to persuade university dining officials to serve cage-free eggs.

Reasa Haggard, a thirdyear law student, is president of the 15-member group and an intern this summer for the Humane Society. She said she began researching the conditions in which chickens were raised because she was intrigued by news of the spread of Avian influenza, a bird disease infecting humans and flocks in parts of Asia.

The information she read had said that battery cages are too cramped. And unlike cats, dogs and other creatures, chickens aren’t protected by federal animal welfare laws.

"They’re just treated like these little egg-laying machines," Haggard said.

ASU dining is managed by a large service company, Sodexho USA, based in Gaithersburg, Md.

Bonnie Gordon, a Sodexho spokeswoman, said it would be difficult to arrange for ASU to get free-range eggs, which cost more than conventional eggs and are in limited supply.

"There’s definitely some discussions that need to happen," Gordon said. "We need to make sure that the majority of the student body would be on board before we’d start something like that."

Another stumbling block: Sodexho has its own standards for quality and safety that food producers must meet before it will contract with them.

"It isn’t just a pricing issue," Gordon said, as she noted that free-range eggs cost more than conventional ones. "It’s a safety issue."

Other universities getting free-range eggs: American University, George Washington University, University of Connecticut, Marist College and Vassar College.

UA joined the pack because David Galbraith, director of the school’s dining services, said he agreed with students’ concerns for humane treatment.

The university switched to cage-free liquid eggs, which are mixed into various dishes served in campus cafeterias. Galbraith estimates that the university will pay about $1.40 per pound for the new eggs — about 20 cents more per pound than conventional liquid eggs.

Last year, UA bought more than 45,000 pounds of liquid eggs — roughly 70 percent of its total egg product order. The rest were loose eggs still in the shell. Galbraith said he’ll wait to get students’ input on whether to expand the cage-free purchases to loose eggs, which cost at least 20 cents each — double that of conventional eggs.

Eggs from free-to-roam fowl are expensive to produce because the birds require more space and care than caged birds. Raising free birds is not a widespread farming practice, so the eggs aren’t as abundant. They make up just 5 percent of the nearly 6 billion table eggs produced each month.

Historically, the egg industry has fought efforts by activists to influence farming practices. But with the increasing popularity of organic foods, many farms have expanded their flocks to include freerange layers — birds that have space to engage in natural tendencies such as nesting, scratching and flapping their wings. And today, a few companies sell free-range eggs exclusively.

The United Egg Producers, a national trade group, views the university-focused campaign as a business opportunity that could net the industry a broader base of consumers willing to pay more for eggs.

"If (students) want to buy cage-free, that’s perfectly fine," said Mitch Head, a spokesman for United Egg Producers. "We have producers that do both" caged and cage-free.

Producers that offer both types are trying to increase their profits. But to small companies that sell only free-range or organic, such producers are unwelcome opportunists that do not share the core, naturalist values of the organic community.

Large -scale companies straddling both markets "are very very late to the cage-free party," said Cyd Szymanski, CEO of Nest Fresh Eggs, which produces only cage-free and organic eggs. "They are doing it for all the wrong reasons."

Szymanski said that if large-scale companies take over the organic market, they’ll squeeze small producers out of business.

The Humane Society of the United States supports the beliefs of organic consumers and sellers.

Paul Shapiro, who is spearheading the organization’s campaign, said the ultimate goal is "to help reform the way that eggs are produced in the United States."

As the organization presses forward, it is opening a door to a market for more egg companies and farms, regardless of their size, to compete for conscientious consumers.

Types of eggs available in stores
Animal-care certified: Look for a check-mark logo on the carton. It signifies that the eggs were produced under specific animal care guidelines adopted by the United Egg Producers trade group and reviewed by federal agriculture inspectors.

Organic: The eggs were raised under natural conditions, free of antibiotics and hormones. To be "certified organic," a farmer must meet growing standards set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program.

Free-range: While it implies that the hen has space to run around, there are no federally-enforced standards regulating this claim.

Prices: According to the most recent federal look at retail prices, a dozen large eggs sell on average for $1.19 and the price for a dozen large organic eggs is about $2.80