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.
It would be easy to dismiss bird-flu scaremongering were it not for history: In March 1918, a particularly virulent strain of flu broke out at a military base in Kansas and then stowed away to Europe inside American soldiers, who ferried it back to the States the same fall. Its spread, and the secondary pneumonia infections that often resulted, were devastating. As many as one-quarter of US citizens became infected, and by the time the “Spanish flu” pandemic flamed out, more than 600,000 Americans had died — almost 200,000 succumbed in October 1918 alone. The virus culled not only the old and infirm but healthy young adults as well. As the 1999 PBS documentary Influenza 1918 showed, the scenes that ensued were worthy of Stephen King novels. Men walking down the street crumpled over and died. Death carts roamed Philadelphia. Undertakers had to hire guards to scare off coffin thieves. Some cities forbade public assembly, and thousands of schools closed down.
The United States had it easy: Estimates of the worldwide death toll range from 30 million to 50 million. And when scientists recently reconstructed the original, most virulent form of the virus from long-stored samples of victims’ lung tissue, they confirmed that it was an avian flu.
If a pandemic of similar scale were to break out these days, the federal government estimates the US death toll could reach 1.9 million, more than double the number of Americans killed in all of our wars combined. Hospitals and morgues would be outmatched. Public panic is likely. And with people unable to work and conduct everyday commerce, the economy would almost certainly spiral into severe recession.
There are many forms of avian influenza, but the virulent H5N1 strain we’re hearing so much about is particularly worrisome to public health officials because it is capable of jumping from birds into people. The first human case was reported in Hong Kong in 1997, and soon H5N1 began appearing all over Southeast Asia. Now the CDC considers it endemic to that region. Most of the poultry raised in countries such as Vietnam and Cambodia ranges freely outdoors, interacting with wild birds that have picked up the bug and flown it as far west as Romania, Turkey, and Croatia.
Based on available numbers, H5N1 is highly lethal: Of the 88 human cases reported to the World Health Organization since last December, 36 have proved fatal — a 41 percent death rate — and these are just the lab-confirmed cases.
The world now stands at stage three on the World Health Organization’s six-step scale of pandemic risk, firmly in the yellow zone. The real nightmare scenario is that the bird flu will mutate, making it transmissible person to person and sparking a worldwide pandemic.
Even if that never occurs, H5N1 is likely to keep dogging the $23 billion US poultry industry. “This virus is a very serious virus, the likes of which we’ve never seen,” says Carol Cardona, poultry health and food safety specialist with UC Davis Veterinary Extension.
Cardona studies avian influenza, and H5N1 concerns her for many reasons. “In the past, we have not seen a bird virus move between wild and domestic birds so easily,” she says. “Most viruses are more species-specific, and don’t cause more than a cold. That’s something you can live with. This virus, however, appears to move in wild birds and then get into domestic poultry, and kills 100 percent of chickens. And that’s not something that anyone can live with. Plus, the human transmissible potential is very frightening.”
International agricultural agencies are desperately trying to get small farmers across Asia to fence in their poultry instead of letting them forage freely. At the first sign of H5N1’s arrival on the continent, Europe, which seemed so far ahead of the States on the animal-welfare front, began to panic over free-range chicken and eggs. Authorities there have banned imports of live birds and forced cancellation of bird shows, while France, England, and the Netherlands have all asked free-range poultry farmers to bring their flocks indoors. Israel’s Agriculture Ministry announced on November 1 that it was banning free-range poultry. Sales of free-range meat and eggs have dropped in Britain, despite assurances from health agencies that properly cooked meat and eggs pose no health risk.
Cardona believes the threat of H5N1 making it to the United States — through wild birds migrating to Alaska over the Pacific Flyway, or infected birds shipped from Asia — is relatively low. “But the stakes are too high to take any risks at all,” she cautions. As the federal government girds for a possible epidemic, it is taking poultry into account. As part of President Bush’s proposed $7.1 billion avian-flu response, the USDA has asked for $73 million to build the nation’s animal-vaccine stockpile, monitor wild birds and bird smugglers, and conduct preparedness training.
Although most Californians have never heard of it, another virulent bird virus has left California’s agricultural industry better prepared to deal with avian flu than our human public health system is. An outbreak of the exotic Newcastle virus among Southern California flocks in 2002 and 2003 led to the state’s worst poultry crisis in more than three decades, and resulted in the slaughter of 3.1 million birds statewide. The USDA put the cost to federal and state agencies at $180 million. And when the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and the California Department of Food and Agriculture moved to control the outbreak, the two agencies were surprised to discover just how many people were raising poultry in their backyards. Those backyard chickens, Cardona adds, were the first flocks in which the virus took hold.
Even in the wake of exotic Newcastle, there are no national, California, or local biosecurity mandates for poultry, whether the birds are raised in massive barns or on someone’s lawn. But during the 2002 outbreak USDA inspectors, state officials, and UC Davis all developed recommendations to help safeguard poultry flocks. Since then, the USDA has advertised its nationwide “Biosecurity for the Birds” campaign through such venues as feed stores and ethnic-community newspapers — even printing messages on sacks of grain — to get small-time growers to better protect their birds and report any signs of disease.
Some of the people raising poultry in our midst have heard of these precautions. The majority have not.
Just off San Pablo Avenue in West Berkeley, Mateo Rutherford gives a tour of his backyard farm. He, co-owner Jim Montgomery, and their four housemates live on a lot that’s almost twice as deep as most Berkeley properties. Back past the lima-bean vines and winter greens, the new milking shed being constructed from sustainable materials, and the apple trees is the animal pen, which takes up an eighth of the yard. Enclosed in a half-covered, half-open pen bordered by eight-foot fences of wood and chicken wire are a dozen or so chickens, a dozen ducks, one rabbit, seven goats, and a flock of pigeons. A conversation with Rutherford is punctuated by fluttering wings, burping goats, and the occasional quack.
Rutherford and Montgomery raise their animals for eggs, milk, and meat — most of which will end up on their own dinner table. “My feeling is that it’s better to live a good life and have someone eat you than live in a cage for three times longer and be an egg manufacturing machine,” Rutherford says.
Until they become a meal, though, these chickens and ducks supply enough eggs for the household and friends, and when you crack into the eggs, you’ll spot the vivid orange-gold yolks laid only by hens that forage. “The chickens eat a variety of food — weeds from the garden, bugs, snails, greens and grasses, along with grains,” he says. “We only buy organic chicken feed, and it’s expensive — the eggs are actually too expensive to sell.”
Twice a year, between growing seasons, the humans turn the chickens out into the garden, where they eat all the greens and pests in sight and fertilize the ground, an efficient composting system. More and more, foes of industrial monoculture advocate methods like this, which allow small-scale farmers to farm more intensively without resorting to herbicides, insecticides, and antibiotics. Rutherford and Montgomery’s multipurpose miniature farm offers the kind of urban-bucolic idyll that eco-foodies dream of, and the pair’s approach to their eggs and meat is as respectful as it gets.
In the government’s view, though, they’re breaking every biosecurity rule in the book. Urban growers in a city where backyard chickens are rare, Rutherford and Montgomery have had no contact with UC Extension scientists or national campaigns, and their organic feed sacks contain none of the USDA’s warnings. One of the primary rules is to keep species separated, because some birds, such as ducks, can carry avian flu without showing symptoms, while others, like chickens, get sick and die. (“They don’t like crops being grown together, either,” Rutherford says wryly when told of this.)
More important, agriculture experts say poultry growers need to keep all wild birds out. The pigeons that fly from their neighborhood coops, and the hawks and crows that sometimes circle, looking for meals? All are potential disease carriers. At minimum, scientists such as Cardona recommend that domestic birds’ food and water be kept sheltered to avoid attracting wild birds. Rutherford points out that the sparrows flitting in and out of his animal pens can fit easily through the chicken-wire mesh.
The guidelines go far beyond keeping wild birds out. Since the avian flu virus is shed in bird feces and secretions from their eyes, throats, and beaks, it can be transmitted indirectly, too. “Here in the United States,” Cardona says, “we say that disease follows the movement of people and equipment.” Poultry farmers, she says, should make sure their human visitors haven’t had contact with other birds, and they should keep new birds — or any birds that have left the farm and come back — in quarantine for several weeks before they join the rest of the flock. Sanitation is also key, she says: Growers need to clean out cages regularly, and disinfect shoes, clothes, people, and equipment before and after entering the pens to make sure nothing that could possibly carry the virus into the poultry area gets past the front gate.
When Rutherford hears of the above recommendations, he says, “It sounds like they’re trying to make backyard growers as commercial as possible — less natural, more controlled.” The Berkeley farmers have certainly lost birds to hawks and raccoons, but never to disease. “My feeling is, when we get to the point that we’re hearing about cases of avian flu in the United States, I’ll get worried,” he says.
What worries flu-watchers, though, is that Rutherford’s methods are typical. In 2004, the USDA surveyed 540 keepers of “backyard” flocks (less than 1,000 birds) situated within one mile of large commercial poultry farms in eighteen states, including California, and fewer than one in six had heard of “Biosecurity for the Birds.” Meanwhile, nearly one in five mingled chickens with waterfowl, and roughly two-thirds left their birds in contact with rodents, wild birds, and other wild animals. Only 3 percent took clothing precautions, and the list goes on.
Many small-scale growers echo Rutherford’s concern that the government is trying to make backyard farmers as commercial as possible. After all, people have been living with birds for millennia, while battery cages, chicken wire, and biosecurity plans have only been around for a short time. Why are we instituting such tight restrictions on our flocks now?
Dr. Cardona’s response, like that of several other agency officials interviewed, is speculative: “We’ve never been ahead of a pandemic,” she says.
In 1999, the same year the EU passed its Laying Hens Directive, United Egg Producers, a trade organization that claims to represent 90 percent of commercial egg producers in the United States, convened a Welfare Advisory Committee. Made up largely of academics and chaired by Jeffrey Armstrong, dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University, the committee reviewed scientific literature to establish animal-welfare standards for UEP members. These became the basis of a voluntary but independently audited certification program for members of United Egg Producers.
At first, participants who’d passed the audit could post a seal reading “Animal Care Certified” on their cartons — Trader Joe’s brand eggs certainly did. But after two years of protest by the Better Business Bureau and Compassion Over Killing, the Federal Trade Commission ruled that the seal was misleading. The new seal reads “United Egg Producers Certified,” and the trade group’s spokespeople claim that 80 percent of their members qualify.
In an interview, Armstrong comes across as a guy who is comfortable with his opinions and the moral ambiguities they contain. He explains that the key measure of animal welfare the committee looked at was mortality: How many chickens did a given cage size or feeding regimen kill? “Up to a point, you give the hens more space and fewer hens die,” he says. “If you give them even more space, some negative behaviors emerge, and it’s not advantageous.”
Armstrong concedes that not everyone would choose mortality as the most important variable. There’s simply no empirical way to measure chicken happiness. “Just how bad is it to suppress a bird being able to run, a bird being able to flap its wings, a bird being able to dustbathe? I don’t think the science is clear on that aspect.”
The trade group’s new “science-based” standards set cage density at 67 to 85 square inches per hen, which means the page you’re reading right now would accommodate between 1.9 and 2.4 adult chickens. The new guidelines also forbid the stacking of cages, rein in forced-molting practices, and improve ventilation and access to water. In short, they improve upon some of the worst aspects of battery-cage systems. But commercial producers, many of whom operate on tight margins, can phase in the changes as money and time allows; there’s no fixed deadline. More critically, the new standards don’t answer the activists’ assertion that packing chickens densely into cages constitutes extreme cruelty.
United Egg Producers offers two defenses of battery-cage farming: The first is that it keeps egg prices down, giving customers a choice. The second invokes the specter of bird flu. The trade association sent out a national press release four weeks ago titled “Modern U.S. Egg Farm Production Methods Help Protect Against Spread of Avian Influenza.”
“The modern type of animal production in the United States is actually more protective of birds, their health and well-being than the more traditional systems such as the free running village chickens in Asia,” it stated. By modern methods, the United Egg Producers means locked barns, workers in full-body suits, and caged chickens.
In the meantime, a well-known nemesis of factory farming also is using avian flu as a scare tactic, but to a different end. On November 18, in time for Thanksgiving, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals sent out its own press release: “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that avian flu can be caught simply by eating undercooked meat or eggs contaminated with the virus, by eating undercooked food prepared on the same cutting board as infected meat or eggs, or even by touching contaminated eggshells,” it stated, tweaking the agency’s precautions to people in potential outbreak areas to make them sound like general threats. “Leaving aside avian flu, according to the CDC, tens of millions of Americans get sick every year from bacteria-laden meat, and thousands die. We could help stop the spread of bird flu and other contaminants by cleaning up appallingly crowded and filthy chicken and turkey factory farms. The best alternative for consumers, though, is to simply stop eating animals.”
The fact is, if avian flu or any other serious poultry disease hits California again, the government isn’t about to take any chances. So jumpy are the health authorities that just last week, according to The New York Times, federal agriculture officials banned imports of poultry from British Columbia after Canadian officials announced that they had found a duck infected with a mild North American flu strain. “We do recognize that we’re dealing with an extremely hypersensitive environment,” the Times quoted a Canadian government veterinarian as saying.
A little hypersensitivity, however, helped USDA and California officials contain exotic Newcastle within a remarkable eleven months. Wherever they found the disease they quarantined not only the farm in question, but any farm within a given radius. Nor did they merely quarantine. “We culled birds thoroughly to get out in front of the disease,” says Steve Lyle, director for public affairs for the food and agriculture department. “If we established that birds in the vicinity of the infected flock were at risk for catching and spreading the disease, we would depopulate them.” Some people, he says, lost a cherished pet bird. Others suffered purely monetary losses.
The USDA has a fund to compensate farmers for their “depopulated” birds. But the economic impact goes far beyond the cost of replacement flocks. Before they could raise poultry again, farms touched by exotic Newcastle had to be decontaminated, and then wait thirty days to let any remaining virus die before the farm could be restocked. Farmers weren’t compensated for this additional lost income, and others, those who sold their birds overseas, also took a hit. During the outbreak, 29 countries and the European Union banned imports of all poultry products from the affected areas. Some of the bans targeted the entire state.
That’s why UC Davis has come up with a new slogan for its outreach efforts: the “good neighbor policy,” otherwise known as regional biosecurity. “We’re in this together, the backyard flocks and the commercial flocks. Even if your birds aren’t affected, they’re all linked,” Cardona explains. “The commercial industry has a stake in keeping backyard poultry healthy, and backyard people interact in so many ways with the commercial industry that they’re interested in keeping the commercial industry healthy, too.”
But does this policy mean everyone has to keep hens in battery cages? Does avian flu signal the death knell for free-range and cage-free eggs?
It should be noted that these labels mean little in practical terms. To be designated “free-range” or “free-roaming,” the USDA mandates only that birds have “access” to the outside. “The government only requires that outdoor access be made available for ‘an undetermined period each day,'” points out Eco-Labels.org, the Consumer Union’s Web guide to environmental labels. “That means that the door to the coop or stall could be opened for five minutes a day and if the animal(s) did not see the open door or chose not to leave — even everyday — it could still qualify as ‘free range.'”
And this applies only to meat, not eggs. The government does not regulate the term “cage-free,” although the USDA’s National Organic Program would seem to guarantee that eggs and poultry are free-range, since certified-organic producers must “provide access to the outdoors, shade, shelter, exercise areas, fresh air, and direct sunlight.” Again, however, the word “access” is defined so vaguely that critics say it’s misleading.
Ultimately, the best way to know how your eggs are raised is to speak with your supermarket’s egg buyer, contact the egg producer, or get to know your local farmers’ market egg vendors.
Many Berkeley Farmers’ Market shoppers know Art Davis, owner of Ludwig Avenue Farms. On a busy November Saturday, the line at his stand is rarely fewer than three deep. Some purchase his greens, potatoes, or pecans, but most walk away with a box of eggs as well. Davis has owned his operation for more than thirty years, and now runs it as a retirement project. He moves economically, a slight stoop to his back, but he speaks with a quiet graciousness that wins him regulars. Many drop off empty cartons, even if they aren’t buying more that day. “He has the best eggs,” one customer says. “They have a whole different flavor. You know how people talk about the eggs and potatoes they had as a kid? That’s what his are like.”
Davis says his eggs, which are certified organic, come from the three-to-four-hundred chickens he keeps in open pens at his two Santa Rosa properties — some are leghorns, some Rhode Island reds, and he keeps a few araucanas whose blue-gray eggs are in high demand. The chickens roam freely around the pens and the chicken houses, and many make their nests under the open sky. “I like raising chickens,” he says. “It’s hard to get the [organic] certification, but I know how to raise good stuff, clean stuff.” Asked about the USDA’s biosecurity campaign, Davis says flatly, “I don’t understand it.”
Davis has no problem with the fact that large commercial farms protect against disease by keeping their chickens pent up. “If you have 10,000 chickens, you have to have tighter controls to get all your eggs,” he says. “It’s common sense.” As for his flocks, disease may threaten them, but so do hawks and skunks: “If you raise chickens,” he continues, “you’re going to lose some.”
Davis may be less romantic about his chickens than most of his customers are, but both value his “good stuff, clean stuff.” How, then, can we hold on to the ideals espoused by farmers like Art Davis, and their relationships with their customers?
“The good news,” Carol Cardona says, “is that the people going to the Berkeley Farmers’ Market do need to know that H5N1 is not here.”
Cardona doesn’t want free-range producers and backyard farmers to give up their chickens. “I’m hoping that this epidemic encourages some inventor to develop a way to cover poultry that need to be kept outdoors so they can be free-range and organic but protected from disease,” she says, wistfully adding that she wished she knew of any engineers taking on the task. “I know people are going to think keeping poultry covered is cruel, but I think the other side is cruel. In my opinion, we have the obligation to protect our birds from a virus that kills 100 percent of them.”
Asked whether the commercial egg producers are trying to force backyard growers to be more like them, Cardona responds abruptly: “I don’t work for the commercial poultry industry, I don’t work for small-scale growers. I work for good of the people of the state of California. People can develop conspiracies out of anything. I just hope they weigh the facts, and come up with their own conclusions. Me, the United Egg Producers, the free-range producers, we’re all saying, let’s promote the health of the birds. We just may differ in how we do it.”
In a biosecure world, we’re all potential disease carriers. Asked for a tour of his operation, Petaluma Farms owner Steve Mahrt says outsiders are no longer allowed in there, and he insists on a phone interview instead.
Petaluma Farms, which produces Rock Island Fertile Eggs and Judy’s Family Farms Organic Eggs, may be the Bay Area’s best-known supplier of cage-free eggs, which are sold in Safeway as well as many natural-foods stores. Steve and Judy Mahrt, who bought the farm 25 years ago, have raised their laying hens in windowed barns with perches and roosts and have avoided antibiotics since year one.
In addition to nixing tours, here are some of the other precautions Steve Mahrt now takes to prevent disease outbreaks: Three-foot high metal strips around the base of the barns to keep mice out. Netting stretched over all openings to let in light and air but not wild birds. Clothing changes and foot baths for all workers every time they enter the building. A washdown of the trucks that deliver chicken feed before they get close to the barns. Oh, and Mahrt’s four kids are forbidden from going to the zoo. “When they were six, eight, ten, they would ask, ‘Why can’t I go?'” Mahrt says. “Now they understand it’s because we don’t want our chickens to get sick.
“I’ve never been a fan of having the chickens run outside, but as far as inside and open-house systems I think we do a pretty good job,” he says. “I mean I’m hoping, right? We’re choosing to be as careful as possible. After all, I’m not old enough to retire.”
If no industrial engineer comes along to develop Cardona’s biosecure netting for free-range farmers, Mahrt’s setup may offer consumers who care about animal welfare our only shot at compromise between animal welfare and public health — one that might even pass muster with activists. The Humane Society of the United States’ Shapiro, for one, scoffs at United Egg Producers and its press release defending factory-farming methods. “The fact is, they’re trying to mislead consumers,” he says. “There’s no advantage to keeping hens in cages. If they want to claim that there’s an advantage to keeping hens indoors, well, most egg production in the United States is indoors. What we’re is asking of companies is that birds be allowed to walk around and engage in natural behaviors.”
The future is even less certain for smaller farmers such as Rutherford and Davis, who raise chickens the way their grandparents and great-grandparents did. For even if avian flu never hits US shores, the damage it could nevertheless cause — to small-scale farmers, to millennia-old traditions, to the way we think about poultry and eggs — may well prove permanent.