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Cage-Free Trend Could Squeeze Big US Egg Producers

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Google and America Online may want their software bundled but not their hens.

They renounced battery cage eggs in their cafeterias this spring.

They are not alone.

Oracle Corporation, Cisco Systems, Adidas, Best Buy and Nordstrom have also renounced battery cage eggs.

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So has the European Union, effective, 2012 and 80 US schools including Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Georgetown University, Dartmouth and Ohio State University.

Battery cages are wire enclosures stacked on top of each other which allow laying hens less than a notebook paper of space each.

"It's very difficult for chickens to lay eggs if they can't do their natural rituals" like clean themselves or stretch their wings, says Thom Stevenson, whose Ohio catering company, Made From Scratch, supplies the newly cage free Ohio State.

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"When you learn what chickens go through, it's just a no-brainer to use cage-free eggs," agrees OSU psychology professor Laura Dilley.

Still United Egg Producers (UEP), the trade group which represents 85% of US egg farms, stands by its battery cages.

"We'll supply the market with whatever consumers want," says Mitch Head, a UEP spokesman. "And 98 percent of consumers want caged eggs."

Battery cages protect chickens from bird flu and exposure to danger from their own droppings says Jim Chakeres, executive vice president of the Ohio Poultry Association--though critics say just the opposite.

In 2005, to buck public opinion which is turning against confinement farming techniques and megafarms, UEP developed guidelines for the care of laying hens. What else could they do with undercover videos of gruesome egg farm conditions starting to surface and resultant boycotts of national food retailers?

But instead of hiring animal doctors they hired spin doctors.

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Battery cages are still recommended under the UEP guidelines since "science has shown that additional space [beyond the 67 square inches allotted] may be more stressful as more aggressive tendencies become manifest."

Debeaking is still allowed--cutting off the young bird's beak to prevent pecking and cannibalism--though it causes "acute pain, perhaps constant pain and stress," bleeding, dehydration and other "welfare disadvantages."

Forced molting--starving hens to produce another laying cycle, a practice even McDonald's condemns--is still recommended. It "allows the flock a period of rest at the end of a period of egg production" and "extends the life of the hen" says UEP guidelines, suggesting an imminent Peace Prize nomination.

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Martha Rosenberg is an award-winning investigative public health reporter who covers the food, drug and gun industries. Her first book, Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health, is distributed by Random (more...)

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