Will Happier Chickens Lay Better Eggs?

In 2008, California voters like myself faced a question on our statewide general election ballot: should we pass proposition 2, making it a misdemeanor to confine veal calves, pregnant pigs, and egg-laying hens in cages so small they can not stand, lie down, turn around and fully extend their limbs? More than sixty-three percent of California voters said yes, and the measure passed handily.

Not everyone was pleased, of course. Some farmers complained bitterly about the measure's vague language, and warned that its operating costs would, in effect, price California's poultry farmers out of the market and force some of them out of business. (The proposition's proponents advocated for the humane treatment of the birds and slammed pen conditions as cruel.)

Just last week, Governor Arnold Shwarzenegger signed law declaring that by 2015, every whole egg sold in California – whether produced in this state or not – would have to come from a hen whose cage conformed to the standards laid out in the 2008 proposition. According to an editorial in the New York Times, this step represents a major move forward. "[T]here is no justification, economic or otherwise," the paper wrote, "for the abusive practice of confining animals in spaces barely larger than the volume of their bodies… Industrial confinement is cruel and senseless and will turn out to be, we hope, a relatively short-lived anomaly in modern farming."

Aside from the conditions of the hens, their eggs are making more news. Time Magazine is reporting that a recent USDA study shows that factory eggs and organic eggs are indistinguishable when it comes to nutrition, though the latter carry a heftier price tag. From a food safety standpoint, some research has even shown that free-range chickens may pick up environmental contaminants.

The egg issue, like many that cross the food/environmental/ethical spectrum, is as complex as ever. As more research continues to roll in, consumers will have plenty to ponder while choosing which eggs to place in their carts.

Chime in: Do you consider free-range or cage-free when you buy eggs?

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Cheryl Sternman Rule is a widely-published food writer and the voice behind the blog 5 Second Rule. Read all of Cheryl's iVillage posts here.

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