Small price increases for eggs is worth it for a modicum of decency

Small price increases for eggs is worth it for a modicum of decency

High egg prices in Colorado are more likely from avian flu than floor-space requirements

FILE – In this Nov. 16, 2009 file photo, chickens stand in their cages at a farm near Stuart, Iowa. Discovery of the bird flu on an Iowa turkey farm has raised serious concerns that the bird killer could find its way into chicken barns in the nation’s top egg-producing state and rapidly decimate the flocks that provide the U.S. with its breakfast staple. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)

By Krista Kafer | Columnist for The Denver Post

January 11, 2023 at 7:00 a.m.

Conservative commentators groused this week about changes to Colorado poultry laws effective Jan. 1. They’re concerned that the price of eggs will go up because operators will have to give laying hens at least one square foot of usable floor space per hen.

They’re right; animal protein, in this case eggs, can be produced more cheaply when the welfare of animals is completely disregarded. But farm animals are not mechanical widgets; they’re living creatures, and it’s worth spending a little more to ensure they’re treated as such.

In 2020, the legislature passed House Bill 1343, which gave large poultry operators two years to provide caged hens with a little more living space. By 2025, hens must be housed in cage-free environments. All eggs and egg products sold in the state must come from poultry operations in compliance with Colorado animal welfare standards. Only operators with fewer than 3,000 hens are exempt.

To understand why this change is just and necessary, one need only witness the abject cruelty of battery cages. In these wire crates, hens are crammed together, barely able to move, much less engage in normal chicken behavior such as scratching, nesting, exploring, and dustbathing. They can’t even stretch their wings.

I’ve seen these inhumane operations firsthand. With the possible exception of gestation stalls for pregnant sows, it is hard to imagine more cruel conditions. That’s why Colorado and eight other states have begun to phase out battery cages. European Union member countries have done likewise.

Dozens of large companies like Nestle, McDonald’s, Arby’s, Aramark, and General Mills have transitioned or are in the process of transitioning to cage-free eggs. Thanks to market pressure and the enactment of animal welfare laws, 70% of laying hens will be in cage-free environments by 2026 according to Associated Press estimates.

Concerns about the rising price of eggs, an important source of protein in the American diet, is understandable. The surge in egg prices this year, however, is primarily due to inflation, higher feed costs, and the impact of avian flu. This spring, the flu killed about 85% of the state’s laying hens. The outbreak was nationwide.

Fortunately, while compliance with the new hen welfare standards will increase production expenses, the costs will diminish over time. Research published in the April 2018 American Journal of Agricultural Economics found that while California’s animal welfare law caused an initial 33% per dozen increase in egg prices, the impact fell over time to 9%. The latter figure would mean a 36-cent increase on $3.99 per dozen eggs, the cheapest eggs currently advertised on King Soopers’ website. That’s a small price to pay to ensure that hens don’t live in miserable confinement while they produce the eggs we eat.

Animals in our care — be they pets or livestock — deserve humane treatment under the law. The first animal welfare laws were enacted in the United States before there was a United States.

In 1641 the Massachusetts Body of Liberties stated, “No man shall exercise any Tirranny or Crueltie towards any bruite Creature which are usuallie kept for man’s use.” In the 19th and 20th Century, all 50 states and the federal passed laws ensuring that animals kept for our use were treated with a modicum of decency. Gaps remain, however, and the Colorado legislature has done right by laying hens.

Rather than complain, we should crow.

— Krista L. Kafer is a weekly Denver Post columnist. Follow her on Twitter: @kristakafer.

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