Over the last few years as a student, consumer and mere observer, I have seen scientists, farmers, businessmen and, yes, even regular citizens raise and address growing concerns about agriculture and the food we buy. In a world where everything can be cheaper and faster, many fail to see the intersection of ethics, public health, economics and consumer behavior within the context of buying produce and animal products.
Struggling through a lexicon of words like “vegan,” “free range” and “certified organic,” sometimes what we understand to be correct is a misinterpretation, making even the simple act of grocery shopping a pain. PBS’s short documentary “Story of an Egg” dives right into this issue, and examines the vocabulary used in marketing and how it translates into real current events, shedding light on the manipulation of agricultural lingo in order to sell product as “ecofriendly” and “cruelty free” to conscious consumers.
The film explains that while words like “organic” are certified and regulated by the USDA’s National Organic Program, terms like “cage free” are loosely defined. While “cage free” sounds great in theory, in reality, this simply means that the hens are not kept in a cage. They are often still contained in a warehouse with up to a thousand other hens. The term does not specify the food (or antibiotics in the food), the space allotted for each bird or the quality of the environment. Similarly, words like “free range” mean that, although the hens have access to an outdoor area, for the majority of the time they are still inside. The word does not define how big the outdoor lot must be, the amount of time the hens are allowed to spend outside or even if the environment selected as their “range” area is a cement lot, as opposed to the grassy field pictured in the commercial advertising the “free range” eggs in the first place.
Even though many Americans like to think of agriculture in this romanticized, historic fashion, the reality, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is that while “fewer than 1 in 4 of the farms in this country produce gross revenues in excess of $50,000, a mere 46,000 of the 2 million farms in this country account for 50% of sales of agricultural products.” That means 2.3 percent of all American farms are collecting on half of all the sales of agricultural products in the United States.
These farms are no longer the small, family-owned operations of the past, but industrial complexes created for business and dedicated to maximizing profits. In the egg business, this means placing as many hens as possible into wire cages stacked onto each other with the average hen having about as much space as a sheet of paper. Because the cages are stacked, the waste of hens on higher levels will oftentimes fall down on other hens.
Additionally, because the space allotted is so restricting, the hens (who cannot perform their natural basic habits like preening or dust bathing) will become stressed to the point where they begin to peck at each other. In order to avoid this, however, the agricultural business will have the chickens de-beaked, but never mind that, because the chickens (which most likely laid the eggs you had this morning) are sitting in a layer, inches deep, of their own filth.
Due to such unsanitary conditions, many hens will have weakened immune systems, become dehydrated and die, leaving behind their rotting carcasses which their fellow hens will be forced to live with, further exacerbating the cycle of disease.
Forgetting animal rights for a moment, what does this mean for the consumer? This means exposing you and your family to a twofold risk of salmonella bacteria, which, according to Animal Visuals, accounts for 31 percent of food poisoning related deaths that occur annually in the United States. What’s more is that these eggs have most likely come from a chicken that has been fed growth supplements and heavily dosed with antibiotics in order to combat the foul conditions of their confined environment, meaning lower nutritional values. Organic eggs have higher levels of the healthy omega-3-acids and twice as much Vitamin D as opposed to their cruel (and squalid) counterparts.
With all this in mind, it’s no wonder that there is a sudden craze for organic eggs and a better understanding of the meaning behind the countless food labels. Our own health is threatened by the quality of the industries that supply the public with animal products. We as consumers express our voices with the goods we choose to purchase and it is an action often undervalued and trivialized which we must take back.
Whether you’re a diehard animal rights supporter, a college student or a parent at a supermarket, there’s no doubt that the healthier, more conscientious choice is to become informed on and involved in these words and the definitions behind them, not just for the birds or the environment, but for our own well being.