The Happy Hens of Europe

In 1999, the European Union (EU) famously announced a ban on battery cages...effective January 2012. If not for the almost unrivaled cruelty involved in egg production, the 13-year phase-out would be worthy of an SNL skit. But even given this absurd amount of time, 13 nations were not in compliance as the deadline dawned. As an EU "Directive," implementation and enforcement fall exclusively to each of the 27 member nations, not through any EU agency. So what happens when almost half blatantly flout the "law"? Who (besides animal advocates) is watching? But more importantly, is the ban cause for celebration?

While EU Council Directive 1999/74/EC will ostensibly eliminate one of the most poignant symbols of ruthless farming, it still allows for concentrated production in the form of "enriched" cages. The enrichment comes from marginally more space per hen (maybe a piece of paper and a half), a perch, a nest box, and a litter area for scratching (the last three shared by multiple hens). But the privations remain: wire mesh floors resulting in deformities, extreme confinement with no fresh air or warm sunshine, denial of natural instincts (pleasures) like dust-bathing and socializing, etc. Is this progress?

There are, some advocates cheerfully report, several countries already moving away from enriched cages and toward the twin holy grails of the humane movement: cage-free and free-range. But here again, a keen if not cynical eye must be cast. What most of the public does not know, by design I'm sure, is that there are no clear and consistent definitions of these oft-used terms. Thousands of distressed hens crammed into a cacophonous, chaotic barn technically translates to cage-free, while limited (perhaps an hour a day) access to an unstimulating, drab landscape would qualify as free-range.

To the businesses charged with meeting an immense demand, compassion is not part of the equation; the animals are but Cartesian machines. But in a viral world of camera-wielding activists, the unpleasantries are not so easily hidden. That, combined with the uncomfortable knowledge that animals are far more complex, more intelligent than ever thought possible, leads a well-meaning public to petition for relief. Lawmakers oblige with supposed reforms - humane slaughter, enriched cages, cage-free, free-range, gestation/veal crate bans, etc. - to soothe the collective conscience.

With consumers convinced of caring corporations and watchdog agencies, it is at least possible and perhaps, as abolitionists argue, probable that animal-product consumption increases with the initiatives. But as a practical matter, life on the farm - with attendant abuses, pain, and suffering - continues as was.

Just as it was morally unjustifiable for some men to force other men to pick their cotton, so too is the coerced harvesting of a hen's reproductive vessel, all because some archaic recipe calls for three eggs. And when one sifts through the illusory rhetoric - benevolent slaveowner, compassionate farming - a basic truth emerges: Exploitation of a fellow sentient being, which necessarily involves suffering of some sort, is inherently wrong, no matter the being, no matter the means.