Last summer, I drove out to see an enormous pile of dead hens not far from where I live in Wisconsin. The egg factory farm where the hens originated had recently been hit with a bird flu infection, which meant that the chickens — all 2.8 million of them — had to be rapidly killed, in a process the industry euphemistically calls “depopulation.” By the time I went to the site, a few months after the cull took place, what remained were heaps of bones, crawling with flies and other scavengers and stretching back as far as the eye could see, giving it the ghostly air of a mass grave. Other than nearby residents who were furious that the corpses had been essentially dropped in their backyards, this place was largely unremarked upon.
When you cover a niche subject like factory farming, it’s always a bit startling to see your beat become major national news, as the avian flu outbreak has in the last few months. But the fact that the bird flu has resulted in the deaths and culling of a record-high 58 million poultry birds in the US since last year alone isn’t what’s driven most of the attention. It’s the price of eggs.
Eggs recently reached an all-time high of $4.25 a dozen on average in the US. That’s sent reporters in search of an explanation: “WTF is going on with absurd egg prices?” a Vice story asked. Is it the flu, which has created a shortage of egg-laying hens? Or, as the advocacy group Farm Action argued to the Federal Trade Commission last month, could it be primarily due to industry price gouging and collusion?
The answer is likely both (plus inflationary factors like more expensive chicken feed), and it matters that we can untangle what’s driving the price hikes. But that’s not really what I want to talk about. The problem with the egg price outrage cycle is that it takes for granted the idea that eggs should be abundant and cheap. This ignores the immense externalities of egg production, and it limits the solutions that are available to us for addressing problems like avian flu — which has not only decimated tens of millions of birds and mammals, but is also increasingly regarded as a serious threat to humans. We can’t have cheap eggs without cruel, disease-promoting factory farms where zoonoses thrive and hens suffer.
The bird flu discourse is very confused
Many people now know about the cruelty of factory farming, which is how almost all US meat and eggs are produced, but they’re reluctant to connect it to the cheap food on their plates. It’s not surprising that consumers are caught in this cognitive dissonance, yet I’ve still been surprised to see it reflected by so many journalists, both national and local, in the last several weeks. One Atlantic writer, for example, remarked in a piece recently that she was “indignant” to spend $6 on a dozen eggs. But how much is too much to pay for the product of an animal’s indignity and suffering? This view — that we have an inherent right to cheap animal products — is symptomatic of our inability to distinguish between a necessity and a luxury when it comes to the products of animal agriculture. In a fairer world eggs would be more expensive — but right now they’re expensive for the wrong reasons.
For the last year, bird flu has torn through egg farms, many of which warehouse hundreds of thousands or even millions of hens in one place, confining them in tiny, vertically stacked cages that don’t allow them enough space to spread their wings. When even a single case of flu is detected at a facility, all the animals have to be depopulated, and despite many outlets inaccurately terming this process “euthanasia,” the methods being used to mass kill birds are not pretty; the 2.8 million hens near me, like millions of others, were killed using ventilation shutdown, essentially a fancy term for heatstroke. All this has created a shortage of egg-laying hens and an opportunity for egg companies to increase prices.
Very little US media reporting on the outbreak has asked questions about what’s happening to the millions of factory-farmed birds killed in depopulations. The national conversation has instead fixated on consumer welfare and, more recently, on how to prevent bird flu from jumping to humans and turning into a catastrophic pandemic.
The most realistic prospect for doing that in the near term is to vaccinate both farm animals and humans, among other interventions, and we should absolutely do these things. The disease is highly fatal, after all, for birds and increasingly other mammals. In rare confirmed human cases, this strain of the virus has killed 56 percent of people, according to the World Health Organization. But we should also be clear-eyed about the moral hazard that the vaccination approach creates: focusing narrowly on protecting humans without disrupting business-as-usual in the poultry industry leaves us little incentive to reform the intensive confinement farming system that inflicts extreme suffering on animals and fuels disease spread.
In the egg price gouging discussion, too, I’ve sensed a desire to absolve Americans of responsibility for participating in an indefensibly cruel system. In its letter to the FTC, Farm Action argued that the more than threefold increase in egg prices in a little over a year is tantamount to “extort[ing] billions of dollars from the pockets of ordinary Americans through what amounts to a tax on a staple we all need: eggs.” While the highly consolidated livestock industry should be held to account for unfair business practices, I believe, and others have argued, that progressives’ focus in recent years on factors like collusion and price-fixing in animal agriculture is misplaced. It addresses consumer welfare without contending with the bigger and much more politically dicey problems with animal production: its scale and reliance on extreme confinement. And if we start from the assumption that eggs should be a staple rather than an infrequent indulgence, it forecloses our ability to fix or even correctly identify what’s wrong with factory farming.
What if eggs weren’t so cheap?
If eggs were priced at their true environmental and animal welfare cost, they’d surely be even more expensive than they are now. At a minimum, we would outlaw the worst depopulation methods and stop bailing out the factory farm industry for the cost of mass killing animals during emergencies, as a group of federal legislators led by Sen. Cory Booker recently proposed (you read that right — taxpayers are currently paying for depopulation).
We’d also phase out factory farms, freeing hens from the dismal battery cages where most of them are now kept and prevented from expressing natural behaviors. We’d ban the routine use of antibiotics to prevent disease in farm animals, which is already contributing to antibiotic resistance. We’d slow down reckless high slaughter-line speeds, which endanger meatpacking workers. We’d stop excluding birds from the Humane Slaughter Act, which, although currently poorly enforced, at least notionally requires that distress during slaughter be minimized. We’d stop effectively exempting the livestock industry from landmark environmental quality laws like the Clean Water Act. The list goes on.
But these animals deserve so much more than what can even be envisioned within the current constraints of our political economy. Chickens should be able to touch grass, have ample roaming space, form social bonds, and rear their offspring. They shouldn’t be forced to lay insane numbers of eggs that take a toll on their bodies, as America’s nearly 400 million egg-laying hens have been engineered to do. The red junglefowl, the wild animal equivalent of modern chickens, lays between 10 and 15 eggs per year, journalist Tove Danovich points out in her forthcoming book Under the Henfluence. Today’s domesticated hens easily lay more than 200, which makes them highly prone to painful reproductive diseases.
Fixing all these problems would be incompatible with animals having mere commodity status. But making conditions on egg farms even minimally palatable to most people would raise prices to a level that people would buy fewer eggs, and we’d produce a lot less of them. That’s a good thing — it’s how the price mechanism is supposed to work, making consumer goods reflect the true cost of producing them. As one writer put it in the Guardian earlier this week: “Imagine how you’d revere an egg if it was as rare and luxurious as a truffle: imagine how differently you’d view the creature that produced it?”
Raising the price of animal-based foods is an inherently thorny argument for progressives to make because it reads as, well, regressive. Low-income people spend a larger share of their incomes on food, and eggs are, at least before the bird flu, one of the cheapest high-protein foods available (though plant-based sources like legumes also provide ultra-cheap protein, and they’re packed with fiber). Most Americans are just trying to make ends meet, and it shouldn’t be on them to scrutinize their every food choice. A just country has to guarantee that everyone can easily afford nutritious food — but that needs to be addressed on a level independent from the decisions we make as a society about the optimal consumption levels and and prices of different foods. And that calculus must include ethical, environmental, and public health costs. Although eggs don’t have as high a carbon footprint as other animal-based foods, like beef and dairy, their emissions are still way higher than plant-based protein sources, so their optimal cost would also price in their climate impact. We don’t need abundant eggs to have abundant cheap protein.
We’re far from being able to make egg farming meaningfully more humane, but crises like the avian flu can reveal vulnerabilities in the industry and quickly organize political coalitions around shared goals. We should be clear about what we want to build toward: Confining millions of birds in conditions that endanger public health, and cruelly mass killing and dumping them when the system breaks, is unconscionable. A business model that not only permits this to happen, but treats it as normal and makes the public foot the bill, isn’t worth the cheap eggs.