Carnegie Mellon makes the switch to cage-free eggs for on-campus meals

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Conditions for egg-laying chickens and other animals raised in factory farms are hardly reminiscent of “Old MacDonald’s Farm”. Factory-farmed animals are typically confined to tiny spaces in unnatural conditions and subjected to the mutilation of their body parts without any painkillers. While anyone who purchases animal products that come from such industrialized farms should explore more humane eating options, Carnegie Mellon’s Dining Services should be commended for switching to cage-free eggs.

Beginning this semester, Dining is using eggs that don’t come from caged chickens. Only cage-free eggs will be used for both liquid and shell eggs. The move follows the lead of more than 150 other colleges and universities in the last few years, including Case Western, Tufts, Georgetown, Dartmouth, and Harvard. Supermarket chains Whole Foods and Wild Oats only sell cage-free eggs, and some major companies — including Burger King and Ben & Jerry’s—are working to phase out their use of eggs from chickens in battery cages.

About 95 percent of egg-laying chickens in this country are confined to battery cages, which are stacked on top of each other so that excrement from the birds on top falls on the animals below. Hundreds of thousands of birds may live in one huge, putrid shed. Birds in battery cages are not able to nest, dust-bathe, or carry out any other natural behaviors. Instead, between five and 11 chickens are stuffed inside cages so tiny that a sole bird wouldn’t be able to spread her wings, even if she were alone. Battery cages have been banned in numerous European countries and will be phased out in the European Union by 2012.

As cruel as battery cages are, the egg industry has other dirty secrets too. Baby chicks typically have their sensitive beaks seared off so that they won’t peck each other to death under stressful conditions. Chickens are often starved for a period of seven to 14 days in order to induce an extra egg-laying cycle. These practices aren’t humane, but for birds, it is better to be subjected to them and not live in battery cages than endure all of the above.

“It takes a chicken living in battery cage conditions about 24 hours to produce just one egg. Supermarket eggs cost about a dime each,” stated author Erik Marcus in his book Vegan: The New Ethics of Eating. “There is no scale with which to compare 24 hours of animal suffering and 10 cents … other than the scale of human conscience.”

It’s up to individuals to question whether it’s worth 24 hours of all that suffering just for a single egg. At an institutional level, since Dining Services isn’t about to stop using eggs, it’s wonderful that Carnegie Mellon and many other schools and companies are saying “No!” to battery cages.

Dining’s decision to switch to cage-free eggs didn’t come out of left field. Students and activists have urged Dining to switch to cage-free eggs for about four years. An organization named Student Animal Liberation Activists (SALA) formed in 2003 to persuade Dining to work with suppliers that adhere to an animal welfare auditing program, with a primary focus on the conditions of egg-laying chickens. SALA disbanded when its founding president, Eric Jonas, left Carnegie Mellon in 2004. Sustainable Students’s efforts to promote local, organic, and humanely produced food have included a partial focus on eggs as well.

“It is encouraging to see Carnegie Mellon take this crucial, compassionate step toward recognizing that animals deserve our respect and consideration,” says Jonas. “While the best way to help animals is to stop supporting the egg industry, which egregiously abuses animals in so many ways, it is comforting to know that Carnegie Mellon has at least stopped supporting one of the myriad abuses facing farmed animals.”

It’s important to consider the origins of food before it winds up on our plates. Production standards that don’t live up to one’s own values of animal welfare and other issues simply should not be supported. Carnegie Mellon students, faculty, and staff can rest easy knowing that their campus egg consumption doesn’t contribute to the worst animal abuse. Nevertheless, this news should serve as a wake-up call about consuming animal products.

The best way to stop supporting cruelty to animals raised for food is by not consuming animal products. Thanks to Dining’s other innovations this semester—new vegetarian and vegan options at Skibo and an all-vegetarian eatery called Evgefstos — eating healthy and humane plant-based foods at Carnegie Mellon has never been easier.