“The first thing I heard from the darkness was a scream. ‘Are there children in here?’ I thought. It sounded like a crying baby.”
So begins a first-person expose from Wayne Hsiung — an ex-law prof at Northwestern and the current lead investigator for Direct Action Everywhere (DxE). The story, which appeared on HuffPo, was accompanied by a video of a DxE Open Investigation Network break-in at a cage-free egg farm which supplies eggs to Kirkland (Costco’s in-house brand) . The video and the story combine to paint a bleak picture in which starving animals tear one another to pieces.
The issue in play here is that cage free living doesn’t really help animals if they’re underfed or overcrowded. In fact, it creates more problems — because stronger animals can mob weaker animals.
One study showed rates of cannibalism increasing by 3000% on cage-free farms, and it’s a horrible way to die. The cloaca of a hen (equivalent to a human vagina) is targeted because it is soft, fleshy, and covered with egg fluids. Driven insane by crowding, the birds attack this weak point, pulling out internal organs in the process.
Over the past few years, cage free has become a sort of shorthand for “ethical eggs” across the food world. Fast food restaurants are racing to go cage free. It just sounds so nice, so very pleasant. The problem is that “cage free” doesn’t make any claims about a net increase in space for hens. Meanwhile, the positive brand associations that the words carry have allowed egg producers to increase prices while keeping costs nearly the same. The profit boost has been enormous.
What’s tricky is that the words “cage free” have now become associated with a more humane era in human history, when the DxE expose shows that this isn’t always the case. Getting public awareness high, and then creating new designations is going to be difficult. And cage free isn’t implicitly bad, in fact it is better that battery cages. But when no one is willing to let newfound profits trickle down and improve the living conditions for hens, things get ugly.
Hsiung’s words serve as a warning of how this situation might evolve:
Corporations are finding ingenious ways to cram more birds into an already tiny space. Until the system changes ― by giving animals some semblance of legal rights ― these corporate abuses will continue.
Costco’s statement on the matter makes it clear they believe the farm in question is an outlier.
“We have reinspected the barn and other operations of this supplier, and based on these inspections and prior audits, we are comfortable with the animal welfare aspects of the operation,” the company said.
Whether that proves to be the case is yet to be seen.