Metro

Yvonne Abraham

Low egg prices come at a cost

HUBBARDSTON — I called on some delightful chickens a few days ago.

The ladies of Barn 4 at The Country Hen egg farm love visitors, hundreds of Rhode Island Reds crowding up against a wire wall to stare. There were 7,000 birds in all, sitting atop perches, ducking into little red houses to lay, eating from feeders that ran the length of the light-filled barn. They clucked and whaa-ed loudly — a huge, unruly choir in desperate need of a conductor.

It’s hard to divine the exact state of hens’ minds, but they did seem pretty happy. Not as happy, perhaps, as they might be if they were roaming free and arguing with geese on Old MacDonald’s farm. But definitely happier than their poor sisters, which produce most of the eggs we eat — unfortunate creatures confined to tiny cages for the entirety of their short, miserable lives, unable to spread their wings. Their suffering — documented in plenty of graphic videos — has kept our egg prices super low, in real terms, for decades. In 1960, a dozen eggs cost about 60 cents — that’s $4.83 in today’s dollars. On Friday, Market Basket was selling a dozen eggs from caged hens for 99 cents.

Advertisement

We get our cheap omelettes, the big egg producers get their profits, and the chickens pay the price. The same goes for other factory farm animals. Many pork producers confine breeding pigs — which can reach 500 pounds — in 2-foot-wide cages barely bigger than their bodies, immobilizing these smart, social animals for their entire lives. Veal calves are locked in similarly confining crates.

Get Fast Forward in your inbox:
Forget yesterday's news. Get what you need today in this early-morning email.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

It’s a crime to mistreat dogs. Why is it OK to do this to other animals? Because they’re delicious?

“Whether you’re a vegetarian or a meat eater, everybody should be able to agree that animals ought not to be tortured their whole lives,” said Paul Shapiro, vice president of farm animal protection at the Humane Society.

If a ballot question proposed for this November passes, Massachusetts will no longer be part of the ugliness. The measure would mandate that, by 2022, all eggs produced and sold in this state come from cage-free chickens like The Country Hen’s, and that all pork and beef grown and consumed here come from animals kept in pens where they can at least turn around and extend their limbs.

It’s a very modest measure. But segments of the national farm industry are annoyed. Treating animals with humanity is more costly.

Advertisement

How much more expensive is a matter of dispute. At that same Market Basket on Friday, a dozen cage-free eggs cost $2.50. (In real terms, about the same as a dozen eggs cost in 1980.) And the Humane Society suggests they don’t even have to cost that much more, citing studies showing cage-free eggs cost only about 15 cents more per dozen to produce. Expect to see those mark-ups shrink in coming years — especially as the cage-free industry expands and becomes more efficient.

That expansion is inevitable. A bunch of huge fast food chains and grocery stores, including McDonald’s and Walmart, have announced plans to sell only eggs from cage-free birds within 10 years. McDonald’s says prices for Egg McMuffins won’t rise as a result.

Now, the segments of the farming industry that oppose the ballot measure are smart enough to know that justifying inhumane methods in the name of bigger profits, is an indefensible position. So they’re hiding behind poor people instead, arguing that price rises will make it harder for consumers to buy meat and eggs.

It’s a valid concern, though it’s overblown, and it doesn’t take account of the many hidden costs of cheap eggs. The poor people the industry is putting out front to make their case have cast their lot with folks who are clearly only pretending they care. One of the attorneys arguing against the ballot measure is former Nebraska attorney general Jon Bruning, who once compared people like them to raccoons eating beetles out of a bucket. “They’re going to do it the easy way, if we make it easy for ’em,” he said. “Just like welfare recipients all across America.”

Busted. The ladies of Barn 4 would be appalled.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.