Practical Issues > Things to do > Religion and Animals

The Chicken and the Egg
4/15/05


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

There are two things that you don't want to see being made (the saying goes): sausage and laws.

That list is accurate, but not comprehensive. There are many other processes where we're sure to be happier when we don't know all the gory details.

I had the unfortunate experience recently of delving into the processes by which chicken eggs get produced. I only read about it and saw a few pictures, but even so I'm inclined to put eggs on the "don't see it" list instead of sausage.

+     +     +     +     +

This weekend, I'm going to be in Phoenix as a speaker for the annual "Caring for Creation" conference sponsored by the Arizona Ecumenical Council. The theme for this year's event is "Sharing the Earth with All God's Critters." I've had to do some extensive research to get to the point of being conversant on eco-justice for animal issues.

The reading -- both theological and political -- was fascinating, stimulating and challenging. There's a diversity of voices urging us toward thoughtful and faithful consideration of how humanity does -- and should -- relate to other creatures.

Theologian Jay McDaniel notes that there are very different ethical issues for cases of explicit animal abuse and exploitation, on one hand, and the more diffuse problems of habitat loss that are forcing so many species into decline and extinction. The abuse category takes us into all sorts of unpleasant areas: sport hunting that just destroys life, medical research that does to primates what we'd never do to people, and the whole realm of factory farming -- which is where chickens and eggs come in.

Most of us don't think of abuse and exploitation in relation to the "incredible, edible egg". Chickens and eggs conjure up wholesome and idyllic images of farms.

The kiddie song tells us that Old McDonald had a farm (probably a long time ago). And on that farm there was a hen. With a cluck-cluck here and a cluck-cluck there, it all seems like a pretty pleasant experience. E-I-E-I-O.

There still are a few farms that raise hens that way. The chickens wander around the barnyard, and the rooster perches on a fence post and crows every morning at dawn.

Most of the eggs that ever make it into the retail market, though, come from a very different kind of setting. Forget about pecking for seeds and bugs in the farmyard. Industrial egg production keeps the hens in cages for their entire lives.

What's so bad about being in a cage? These hens are generally crammed into small wire cages, five or six birds per cage. I hear that the situation is not as crowded as it once was. The average chicken now gets a space of 67 square inches, about three-quarters the size of a sheet of typing paper. In that sort of cramped space, the birds cannot express any of their normal behaviors, such as nesting and dustbathing, or even stretch their wings.

One of the ways that hens react to the stress of these conditions is to peck each other constantly. (Think of how you feel after flying coach on a transcontinental flight, and then imagine spending years confined to your seat. You'd peck, too.) To limit the damage from the pecking, the industry has a practice that they politely call "beak trimming", where a hot knife is used to lop off the end of the beak.

In the huge facilities used for egg production -- with up to 200,000 birds in a single building -- lots of antibiotics are loaded into the chicken food to prevent devastating outbreaks of disease. The food itself is unnatural, made from a mix of grain and ground up chicken, with added hormones.

To keep egg production -- and profits -- at the highest possible levels, another practice ("forced molting") periodically deprives the hens of food and water for several days, and regulates the hours of light and darkness to re-set their biological clocks. What with all of these factors, a hen at a "factory farm" may produce more than 260 eggs per year. Old McDonald's hen, back in 1940, probably only produced 130 eggs a year.

But the cluck-cluck hen in the McDonald family barnyard might have lived 15 years. The factory farm hen will probably be "spent" and made into chicken soup in about two years.

Large scale egg production is an abusive, exploitative enterprise. For the sake of profit, multitudes of God's "critters" are brutalized, manipulated, disfigured, and destroyed. The inherent interests of the chickens -- for natural behaviors and social interaction, long life, and the absence of pain and stress -- are ignored. These living creatures are treated solely as a means for producing a marketable commodity. That sort of treatment is ethically wrong, whether it is inflicted on sweatshop workers or on poultry.

+     +     +     +     +

Other than eating oatmeal instead of eggs for your breakfast, what can you do?

Exercise consumer choice when you buy your groceries. Look for "cage free" eggs. The conditions aren't as good as at Old McDonald's farm, but they're a whole lot better than six hens to a cage. You'll pay about twice as much, and it is worth every penny.

On the political side, chickens and turkeys are specifically left out of almost every US law against animal cruelty. If you're in the mood for a long but meaningful piece of advocacy work, join the struggle to get far better legal standards for the poultry industry.

The way we "share the Earth with all God's critters" is a matter of ethical concern. Awareness and action around eggs is a small, but important, step that may lead you to even deeper commitments toward caring for all of God's creation.