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Endangered Species

Free-range poultry may be the first casualty in our war on avian flu.

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As animal-welfare protests go, this one was pretty tame: no costumes, no spray paint, just three young women standing outside Emeryville's Trader Joe's on a mild October evening doling out brochures. "Why Won't Trader Joe's Give an Inch?" the fliers read, above a photo of chickens looking forlornly through the wires of overcrowded cages at eggs they had just laid.

The activists were members of East Bay Animal Advocates, a Martinez group that is part of a nationwide campaign by the Humane Society of the United States to persuade Trader Joe's to sell only "cage-free" or "free-range" eggs. The Humane Society of the United States spearheaded the 2003-2004 campaign that led to a ban on foie gras production in California, and has since turned to weaning the egg industry from so-called battery cages, the wire cages where the vast majority of farmers keep their laying hens.

Activists paint a horrific picture of an egg-layer's plight. Hens are packed into cages at a density of 67 square inches per bird on average -- that's about three-fourths a standard sheet of printer paper, insufficient for the birds to flap their wings, let alone walk. Industry critics claim that these wire-bottomed cages cripple the hens' feet and let feces drop through, sometimes onto the heads of chickens stacked below. Egg producers snip off part of the birds' beaks to keep them from pecking their cage-mates. And when the caged hens stop producing, the farmers starve them for several weeks, then give them food again to spur another round of laying. Estimates vary, but it's thought that 90 to 98 percent of laying hens in the United States are kept in such accommodations.

Niche producers have marketed "cage-free" eggs for a quarter century, but now foes of factory farming are pushing to eliminate battery cages altogether. In recent years, groups such as Compassionate Action for Animals, United Poultry Concerns, and Compassion Over Killing have joined the Humane Society of the United States in ramping up efforts against the egg industry. The initial targets were supermarkets with a natural-foods ethos. "Customers expect more from Trader Joe's," explains Humane Society of the United States organizer Paul Shapiro, citing the chain's decision to stop selling duck meat in response to the anti-foie gras movement.

Whole Foods and Wild Oats, along with several smaller natural-foods chains, recently stopped selling conventional eggs. Trader Joe's held out longer, weathering an online petition, drives to stuff its suggestion box with notes, protests outside stores, and a full-page ad the Humane Society of the United States placed in the Los Angeles Times.

But after ABC News affiliate KGO ran a report earlier this month featuring horrifying video of dank, crowded, feces-covered cages in the barns of Trader Joe's Turlock supplier, the chain, which operates 238 stores in twenty states, announced it would cease selling battery-cage eggs under the Trader Joe's label by next February. Although the grocer will still sell other, conventional brands, its decision will affect more than 100 million eggs per year.

While the campaign against factory-farmed eggs is just warming up here, it's in full swing overseas. Switzerland has had a ban on battery cages in place since 1981, and the European Union's 1999 Laying Hens Directive mandates a complete shift to cage-free systems by 2012. Poultry farmers will have to keep all their hens in barns with areas for perching and nesting, or use enriched cages, which are larger ones with nests, perches, and litter for scratching.

In truth, it's not activists but consumers who are driving this trend. Buying cage-free eggs and free-range poultry has become an important lifestyle signifier. A recent nationwide survey conducted by global market-research firm Mintel found that 16 percent of participants purchased free-range eggs, and that figure rose into the low twenties for young adults and households earning $75,000 or more. By Mintel's estimates, "natural" and organic meat may only represent 2 percent of the poultry market to date, but sales are growing fast, fueled by an increasing willingness of consumers to pay a premium for their ethics. This is as true with cage-free eggs as it is of free-range chicken. At Trader Joe's, for example, conventional eggs start at $0.99 a dozen and cage-free at $2.69.

Most Americans expect meat and eggs to be a major part of our diets, yet few bother to contemplate why they cost so little. Even so, the thought of our food coming from battery cages, industrial feedlots, and slaughterhouses remains disturbing, which is why the romance of free-range chickens and their eggs is so potent. Not to mention the latter are often free of hormones and antibiotics, and tend to taste better.

Whether motivated by genuine concern for animals, dietary issues, or a vague sense of guilt, the developed world appears to be on a path toward mitigating factory farming's worst excesses and returning to older ways that improve the lives of animals -- and consequently, the quality of the meat, eggs, and dairy products they produce. And what's not to like about the vision of carefree hens gamboling on the prairies, snacking on grubs, and depositing pearly eggs on delicate tufts of grass?

Try a global pandemic that could kill tens of millions of people.

The strain of avian influenza that's been downing birds all over Asia may be headed our way. Efforts to contain it center on the way people raise domestic poultry, and the surest way to keep birds from catching and spreading the disease, scientists say, is to keep them indoors. The battle over what that means for free-range poultry and cage-free eggs is beginning to roil. Corporate egg producers are claiming that caged chickens are safe chickens, while small-scale growers worry that the government is using this opportunity to shut them out.

For free-range farmers, there are no easy answers. The mere threat of a bird-flu outbreak in the United States is likely to change the way consumers view chickens. And if public health professionals -- or poultry industry spin doctors -- succeed in pitting free-range ideals against human health, it's a safe bet which side is going to lose.


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