There’s a big disclosure today of another animal cruelty undercover investigation, this one involving egg-laying hens.
The Humane Society of the United States says it is “shining a light on the dark world of suffering for millions of egg-laying hens.” It does that through an undercover investigation of big producer Kreider Farms, which the organization says “confines millions of hens inside barren battery cages that are so cramped, the animals can barely move an inch for their entire lives.”
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof broke the news of the investigation in a column today. He expressed outrage about the treatment of the chickens, suggesting it made him lose his appetite for eggs. “Granted, it is not easy to settle on what constitutes cruelty to animals. But cramming 11 hens for most of their lives into a cage the size of an oven seems to cross a line. Somehow, fried eggs dont taste so good if you imagine the fetid barn in which they were laid.”
I agree, but I wish he had gone a step further and considered the impact of the inhumane treatment of the animals inevitably on the nutritional quality of the eggs they produce. It always amazes me that we as a society associate quality, and cost, of products like sweaters or cars, with the quality of their raw materials, the attention to detail of assembly, the treatment of the workers and other such qualitative factors. Yet food we assume is all the same. And as a result of that attitude, cheaper seems inevitably better, so places like Kreider Farms keep trying to cut costs any way they can, including what they do for the hens.
The whole qualitative thing is something that is pretty obvious with eggs. It shows up most obviously in the color of the yolk, which in good eggs is a deep orange. It also shows up in thicker shells, and more of a noticeable egg yolk taste. Just as with real milk, signs of quality becomes apparent pretty quickly, in the cream line, the taste, and the presence of a yellowish hue, signifying high amounts of beta carotene from cows grazing on grass.
Over the last few years, I’ve become as attuned to my eggs maybe as my milk. I try to scout out producers that allow their chickens to roam about and eat grass and weeds and bugs and worms.
Just yesterday I was at the Upper Valley Food Co-op in White River Junction, VT, for the express purpose of buying eggs. When I can’t get to one of the farmers markets where I like to buy eggs, I try to go to the Upper Valley Food Co-op because it carries eggs from more than 30 different local producers. It has a chart on the wall with key information about each producer–what the chickens are fed, whether the feed is organic, what kind of housing the chickens are provided, and whether they get outside. At any one time, there are eggs from maybe a half dozen of the providers, though sometimes there are just two or three. Yesterday was a good day, with eggs from about eight producers, and I bought eggs from three different farms that all indicated they allow the chickens to get outside and that they have a varied diet that includes some grass, and in one case table scraps. The first few eggs I’ve tried look and taste very good.
I tried some supposedly “pastured” eggs available at Whole Foods a while back. I think they came from Texas, but I found them pretty disappointing in appearance and taste. Makes sense–it must be difficult to mass produce pastured eggs on a scale appropriate for Whole Foods.
But to the point of nutritional quality, there are some recent research findings indicating that real pastured eggs have much higher levels of key nutrients than the factory items as in 50 per cent more naturally occurring vitamin E and three times more beta carotene, all present with one-third less cholesterol and one-fourth less saturated fat.
We know well that cattle, pigs, and chickens produce varying quality meat, depending not only on their breed and how they’ve been fed, but likely how they’ve been treated. A few farmers I know say they raise their animals “with love,” in part because it leads to better quality meat, and they try to avoid difficult rides to the slaughter house.
So while basic decency would suggest you don’t mistreat chickens or any other animals, I’d say there is another equally compelling reason–to improve the quality of the food they produce. That’s a difficult concept to get across in a food system dominated by factory producers that would rather people not think about such distinctions.