Activists and farmers disagree over which is more important
By stacey coburn
October 27, 2005
As drivers pull into Wegmans on Meadow Street, they are confronted by a large yellow wooden sandwich-board sign that reads, "Wegmans Med AA EGGS (limit 2 dozen) 49�" at either end of the parking lot.
Senior Dan Dunbar and other members of Boundless Ethics protest Friday outside Wegmans against Wegmans Egg Farm�s treatment of hens.
If it�s a Friday between 5 and 7 p.m., drivers may see signs that show a different take on the eggs. These read, "Wegmans go cage free!" "Wegmans cruelty.com," and "Honk if you support cage free." Students hold up the homemade poster-board signs, and one of them, senior Dan Dunbar, does so dressed in feathers. In his handmade yellow felt stockings, a white-felt hen bodice complete with a red wattle at his neck and an orange-beak hood atop his head, Dunbar said he hopes to bring more attention to ethical treatment of hens.
The students are members of the Ithaca College animal rights group Boundless Ethics. They are protesting Wegmans Egg Farm in Wolcott, N.Y., which has more than 700,000 hens and provides eggs for all Weg- mans stores.
They have a problem with Wegmans� low-priced eggs because of the poor care, feed and water the farm provides the hens, said Dunbar, the club�s president. He also pointed to the amount of time it takes for a hen to produce just one egg: 25 hours.
"The numbers sum it up," Dunbar said. "They�re treated like machines. They don�t get to walk around and spread their wings, which is the least they deserve."
The students also hand out copies of a 30-minute documentary, "Wegmans Cruelty," made by Compassionate Consumers, a Rochester-based nonprofit organization that advocates consumer and animal rights in agriculture.
Activists filmed the documentary during alleged break-ins at Wegmans Egg Farm in 2004. Adam Durand, Megan Cosgrove and Melanie Ippolito, Rochester-area activists featured in the film, were indicted earlier this month on several charges, including burglary, criminal mischief and criminal trespass.
The documentary shows images of hens climbing on top of each other in rows of stacked, crowded cages; hens with their heads caught between bars of the cage; a hen drowning in feces on the floor of the farm; and living hens surrounded by dead hen carcasses caked onto the bottom of the cages.
Wegmans spokesperson Jo Natale said she is skeptical that some of the images are from Wegmans Egg Farm. Natale denies that the hens at Wegmans Egg Farm are mistreated.
"We run a good farm," Natale said. "We think it�s wrong to mistreat animals. We want them to be healthy. We want them to live long lives. We have always sought out the most current science."
Cages with automatic feed and water for hens, which activists call "factory farming" in "battery cages," are an egg industry norm. But some major sellers are moving toward cage-free production, said Compassionate Consumers campaign manager Ryan Merkley.
Whole Foods and Wild Oats Markets, both natural and organic food stores, began selling exclusively cage-free eggs in June 2004. And ASDA, Wal-Mart�s subsidiary in the United Kingdom, stopped using 500,000 caged birds for its brand eggs in May.
Benjamin Lucio-Martinez works for the poultry diagnostic and extension services at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University and has inspected Wegmans Egg Farm and farms throughout New York. He said Wegmans has one of the best animal care management systems of all commercial farms in the United States in terms of watering, feeding, ventilation and space. Lucio-Martinez said hens in cages have a lower mortality rate than cage-free hens because they are protected against diseases and predators.
"There is no scientific measurement for happiness of a chicken," Lucio-Martinez said. "There is a way to measure health."
Lucio-Martinez said caged birds are healthier and the eggs they produce are cleaner and pose less risk to the human consumer than free-range or cage-free birds.
Wegmans eggs are available as a low-cost source of protein, according to the Wegmans Web site. Wegmans also offers customers the choice of buying cage-free non-Wegmans brand eggs for $2.69 for a dozen large and $2.99 for a dozen extra large � about three times more than Wegmans eggs.
Matthew Sanaker, one of several vendors at the Ithaca Farmers Market that sells free-range eggs for around $3 a dozen, started his 75-hen farm a year and a half ago with his wife to ensure that his food was being obtained humanely.
The hens at the Sanakers� farm, Green Man Farm in Groton, are fed organic grains and have access to grass, water and sun. They are kept on Sanaker�s property by electric netting. At night, the hens are kept in wooden boxes indoors to protect them from predators, Sanaker said. The eggs taste better and the animals are healthier because they�re living a more natural life without antibiotics or hormones, he said.
There are no legal standards for labeling eggs "free range" or "cage-free." For this reason, Sanaker said, the best way to ensure that hens are treated humanely is to buy from local, small-scale farms.
Katie McKeon, a speech pathology graduate student at Ithaca College and a vegetarian, said she chooses to buy organic and free-range eggs from Wegmans because hens on free-range farms are generally not de-beaked, a practice that factory farms do to prevent the birds from pecking each other.
"It seems like a more ethical way to go," McKeon said.
A communications graduate student at Ithaca College who interned for the Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen last summer, said she still shops at Wegmans because it has so many natural foods available for vegans like her.
"I have written a letter to them saying, �You do such a good job for us, we hate to see you fall down in just this one area,"� Vehar said.
vBlog for Monday,
discussing the Sunday protest at the Pittsford Wegmans against the cruel
and unhealthy conditions of the chickens in Wegman's Wayne County egg