Sunday, April 12, 2009

Free-Range Eggs

I am not one to become too caught up in animal-rights activism. While I care about humane treatment of animals and attempt to be knowledgeable about the issue, I am still undeniably a meat-eater. However, when I read about how egg-laying chickens are treated in “The Ethics of Eating Animals” chapter in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I gave more thought to the issue than usual and ended up laying out some ideas about how to change my diet in major ways.

The images Michael Pollan created of chickens being squeezed into tiny cages, going stir-crazy, and being forced to lay as many eggs as possible were disturbing. After reading that part of the chapter I haven’t been able to look at a carton of eggs the same way. Pollan asserts that treating animals humanely means letting them act in the animal-like ways that make them appear happy—for example, letting a chicken run around and peck at things and act in a chickeny way. This made perfect sense to me. So there is no reason for me to continue feeling entitled to cheap, tasteless eggs at the grocery store when it means chickens have to be denied a contented, chickeny life in harmony with their environment.

Since I have seen free-range eggs for sale, I decided to research the claims these egg producers made about being more sustainable and humane. Articles and websites about this issue have a wide range of opinions. Some sites assert that free-range practices are as good as they sound. Others argue that chickens are treated almost as badly as they are in cages. It’s hard to know what is true, and in real life there is probably a wide spectrum of egg-laying operations that fall under the category of “free-range.” The USDA’s specifications for free-range aren’t very clear and leave room for a lot of interpretation. My aunt and uncle live on a farm where they raise free-range chickens and sell the eggs, so from personal experience I can say that there really are farms with egg-laying practices that a person could feel good about. But I can easily believe that there are also free-range farms where the chickens are not treated as well as they are on my relatives’ farm.

At the grocery store, the free-range eggs I looked at were considerably more expensive than the regular eggs, as I expected. I also did not have much information about whether the farms these eggs came from practiced truly sustainable free-range farming. But I decided to give these eggs the benefit of the doubt. I want to support sustainable farming practices, and buying free-range eggs was the only option I had at the store to do so. So I bought them, and they ended up tasting delicious.

On the other hand, I did kick myself harder than usual when I wasted one while I was trying to separate the whites out for a dessert. Normally when I try to separate 4 or 5 egg whites for a recipe, I end up ruining at least one and throwing the whole egg out. I am deliberately careless because I know how cheap the eggs are. If I learn to value my food more, then I will be much more careful and probably not waste any eggs. Or if I do fail at separating an egg white, I should fry the whole egg to eat instead of throwing it away. It is only recently that we have learned to have so little respect for the food we eat, and industry has taken advantage of that.

By valuing my food more, I can offset the extra cost of the free-range eggs. I will probably eat eggs less often than I am currently accustomed to doing, and I will also be more careful not to break or ruin eggs and have them end up in the trash. None of this is a problem with me. I don’t mind sacrificing quantity for quality; when I do eat eggs I will probably enjoy them more because they taste better than regular eggs. The idea of slowing down to enjoy and value one’s food has been brought up on several occasions in class, and would be a great way for people in our country and others to lose weight and live healthier lifestyles.

Pollan mentions in another part of the book that Americans spend 10% of their disposable income on food, the highest percentage in our history. Americans also throw away 25-50% of the food they buy, depending on which source you look at. Imagine: if we bought only enough food to feed ourselves a healthy, sustainably produced diet without excessive waste, it wouldn’t matter that the food was more expensive. The “hidden costs” of food that are mentioned so often in our readings and class discussions would be drastically reduced, because we would not have as many public health issues or an obesity epidemic. We also would not be using as many fossil fuels to transport our food such long distances, because our food would more likely be locally produced. Unfortunately, Americans are not able to understand this reasoning at first. They have to learn that it is worthwhile to buy food that, at first glance, looks unjustifiably expensive. Industry and society have tricked us into thinking that food should always be as cheap as possible.

So in the end, my concern over the treatment of chickens turned into a commitment to buying less food, wasting less food, and eating more healthfully. The eggs are my first step toward overcoming the aversion to expensive food that society has taught me.


The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

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