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Grassroots enthusiasm and new legislation propel healthier chicks and eggs

Photo: Illustration by Chuck Kerr, License: N/A

Illustration by Chuck Kerr


Ussery's discussion of proper scalding technique helped explain why my last plucking attempt was a disaster. And I didn't know that those plucked feathers, being a great source of protein, can be tossed back in the coop as feed (I've been using the feathers as a garden fertilizer, which also works, since protein equals nitrogen). And if you're one of those flocksters who toasts and grinds your cracked eggshells before feeding them back to the chickens (to replenish their calcium), Ussery says you're wasting time. "Just crush coarsely by hand and toss them out."

The Small-Scale Poultry Flock also provides valuable insight into how the other 99 percent lives, which will help you understand how much the Egg Products Inspection Act will do for the egg slaves. The book includes, for example, a discussion of the production-boosting practice of forced molting, which the new legislation would ban.

"...the birds are starved for a period ranging from five to twenty-one days, either by complete withholding of food or sometimes the feeding of nutritionally deficient feeds — water may be withheld for briefer periods as well — together with light manipulation and feeding of drugs, hormones, and metals such as dietary aluminum and zinc." It's common for hen body weight to drop by 25 to 35 percent, he explains, as all the trauma of winter is packed into a few days in order to reset the laying cycle.

If passed, the bill would mandate that all egg cartons be labeled as "cage-free," "free-range," "enhanced cages,"or "caged. The "caged" option would be eliminated over an 18-year phase-in period. This would be the first instance of production practices being raised to the status of ingredients: information you have a legal right to know.

Not surprisingly, other livestock producers are calling fowl on the poultry legislation. Kristina Butts, director of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, said in a public comment, "currently there's no production practices in federal statute [sic] and we want to keep it that way." The reason United Egg Producers agreed to help draft this bill is that they were losing, state by state, in referendums on the issue. The terms differed with each loss, threatening to make interstate egg commerce way too complicated. UEP didn't want to deal with 50 different state mandates.

But many on the chicken-rights side of the compromise lament that the new legislation is little more than lipstick on the pig of industrial egg farming, and that 18 years is a long time to wait for full fruition.

If the compromise fails, the battle returns to the states, where it favors the chickens.

Humane Society spokesman Josh Balk told me last July that while the deal doesn't raise the quality-of-life bar as high as he and others would like, similar laws recently passed in Europe have encouraged producers to exceed baseline conditions. "There's a thriving cage-free market, even though the new EU laws don't require cage-free housing systems," he said. "More than half the eggs in the U.K. are from cage-free hens."

While both cage size and backyard poultry enthusiasm are on the rise, chicken society remains far from perfect. Those at the top are a minority, and a middle class is practically nonexistent. But like a Ronald Reagan economic fantasy, the working-class chickens are doing better, and the elite class is growing. This is good for the hens whose ovulations put breakfast on the table. And it's good for egg eaters, because as any flockster will attest, when the chicken comes first, good eggs will follow. •

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