Government

House Debates Health and Safety of Cage-Free Eggs

PROVIDENCE — The effort to outlaw raising chickens in small cages sparked a testy debate at the Statehouse. The wire cages, known as battery cages, are about the size of a small oven and are considered cruel for the hens confined to them for life. The cages can hold up to 10 hens at a time.

The owner of the state’s largest egg farm and other supporters of the practice, however, say the cages are healthier than other options.

Consumers are also endorsing the practice by continuing to buy eggs from confined birds, said Eli Berkowitz, owner of Little Rhody Farms in Foster, during a March 3 House hearing. “People are looking for value,” he said.

State veterinarian Scott Marshall said 90 percent of the eggs sold in Rhode Island are from hens confined to battery cages. The industry standard is about 70 square inches of space per hen. Marshall heads the state livestock care advisory board, which seeks a 116-square-inch space standard — the most stringent in the country after Michigan. The proposed legislation sets a 216-square-inch minimum.

Marshall defended battery cages, saying that eliminating them or increasing their size doesn’t always make life better for chickens, as they need room to perch and nest.

One of the benefits of cages, proponents argue, is that they allow manure to drop to the ground. Cage-less chickens are more prone to be exposed to pathogenic bacteria by eating or living in their waste, said Ken Klippen of the National Association of Egg Farmers.

Opponents of battery cages say they prevent chickens from their natural behaviors such as roosting, nesting and cleaning themselves.

“I know firsthand that chickens are smart and cramming them into cages that deny all their natural behaviors is simply wrong,” said Denise Melucci, owner of a small farm near Little Rhody Farms.

The sponsor of the bill, Rep. Patricia Serpa, D-West Warwick, said a ban on battery cages and enacting other legislation to protect animals is one of the most important roles of the General Assembly.

“If you saw six cats living in [a battery cage], or six dogs living in it, there is no way on god’s green earth you could close you eyes at night and say, ‘Yes that’s humane,’” Serpa said.

Little Rhody Farms is the only one of the three commercial egg farmers in the state to use battery cages. The farm keeps 40,000 chickens, small compared to farms in Connecticut and Maine that house 5 million hens.

Berkowitz said the proposed law would put him out of business. If everyone in Rhode Island donated $1 to his company, he said, he could afford the $600,000 cost to switch to cage-free farming.

“The bill you proposed really hurts my business,” Berkowitz said.

The European Union bans battery cages. Massachusetts is expected to vote in November on a statewide ban on eggs from caged chickens.

The Rhode Island legislation includes an exemption for Little Rhody Farms by allowing existing cages to be used until they no longer function. Last year, the House passed a similar bill. The Senate did not act on the legislation. This year’s bill was held for further study.

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  1. This is absolutely disgusting. To think that in 2016 we are debating whether or not it is humane to cram 10 hens into a tiny cage for their entire miserable lives. This animals are living, intelligent, emotional creatures. They are not egg machines!

    Little Rhody Farms does not care about the welfare of their chickens or their consumers. All they care about is their bottom line. Consumers need to seek alternatives to eggs as they are cruel products. It is time to move away from animal-based foods toward a plant-based diet.

    http://freefromharm.org/chicken-behavior-an-overview-of-recent-science/

  2. If this practice is considered inhumane then why should exceptions be made. All farms should be held to the same standards. If the general public was fully aware of the practices of these large farms and the impact on our health, there would be great support for cage free chickens feed a better diet. Just look at the increase in families raising their own chickens.

  3. I have two points I’d like to make in support of ending the use of battery cages. 1) Our state vet Scott Marsahall always seems to be on the wrong side of issues when it comes to the humane treatment of animals. Why become a vet if you don’t care about the lives and welfare of animals, putting business concerns first? He has a long history of fighting with animal rights activists over these issues, and he is far behind the times. The state should move to replace him. 2) The owner of Little Rhody seems only interested in the cost and how it will hurt his business, rather than being concerned for humane treatment of animals. This is exactly the wrong stance to take and shows an unethical thought process regarding animals. When in business, all aspects of the situation matter. Business and money should not come first over ethics. He also said his customers want value and don’t care about the cages. This is untrue. Those in the know are outraged by his treatment. The battery cages are similar to gestation crates and are cruel. When we start accepting how cruel we have become, we can possibly change. The battery cages must go!

    — Jim Bastian

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