Saturday, December 8, 2012

EGGS FROM HEALTHY HENS – WHAT DOES IT MATTER?

Most of us eggs eaters, like to think that eggs are “lifeless” – sort of like eating cheese, or potatoes or spinach. Of course, our conscious minds know the difference. When we eat eggs we are eating what was once a living being - in the fetal stage. The main difference of the egg from other meat-protein sources is that it never was a living, breathing bird. Still, the hen that produced that egg definitely is or was, and her conditions might mean something to you. And, if you have any heart at all, you don’t want to think that you’re eating something that’s a product of endless suffering, injury and disease.

Several huge salmonella outbreaks at egg production factories seemed to capture public attention on the safety of eggs and the conditions that surround the poultry living there. A New York Times article focused on how the U.S. egg industry treats the over 300 million chickens in phases of annual production and marketing. 97 percent of all US eggs live their entire lives with tens of thousands of other birds, crammed  in filthy and inhumane production units. Certainly no compassionate person could watch the videos taken in these places without being physically ill.

Make a chicken's life a little better and eat healthier eggs, too.

Among the horrors of the conventional battery-cages are total darkness – that means blindness and barely able to move in indoor pens as long as football fields. Birds can’t even stretch their wings and routinely injure and kill others just looking for enough space to stand up. They are routinely de-beaked. The waste that's generated on these gigantic farms causes terrible odors for miles around and pollutes local water supplies.

Any male chicks born in the commercial egg  industry get thrown onto conveyor belts where they are suffocated or pushed alive into chicken meal grinding machines. Any hens that survive their egg-laying life – up to about 2 years, are then near death from stress and nutrient starvation. Then, they suffer “forced molting", a grotesque operation that deprives them of food and water for up to 2 weeks, a final stressing that tends to increase their waning egg-laying frequency.At this point they are thrown together one over another in truck cages where they go to the chicken slaughterhouses where further nightmare conditions lead them to a painful death. There they end up on people’s table, unlabeled as to their ordeal, and sold as “regular” farm-raised poultry.

While it seems logical that the battery cages and other abuses of the egg industry should be outlawed, there is no major push to end these conditions by US consumers. News from the European Union shows that there is a grass-roots move to ban this means of production throughout the region, and some countries have already signed on.

Commercial choices aren’t all that good
Given this situation, some people now regularly buy cage-free or free-range eggs. According to the same Times article, 2% of our commercial eggs are from cage-free hens and 1% is from free-range birds. Of course, just being caged-free or free range, by label, does not mean that the birds are actually living out happy, healthy lives. Many of them don't have access to the outdoors, and aren’t fed optimum food and may be medicated on antibiotics. Also the majority of even the so-called “free-range” birds don’t get much time free from their cages because the doors to the outside pens are too small, relative to the total number of birds. Sadly, the same Times article reported that many "cage-free" and "free-range" eggs come from the very same farms that produce battery-cage eggs. It’s simply an industry ploy to capture well-meaning consumers who will pay more money for eggs that come from somewhat better poultry production conditions.

While the real conditions vary considerable, clearly these 3% are better off than their battery-caged cousins. They are, at least, able to scratch and spread their wings and, sometimes, according to their individual luck, be involved in healthy chicken pastimes. And the eggs they produce taste better and are healthier for you from a nutritional standpoint - with more vitamin E and more total omega-3 fatty acids.

For my choice, I'm trying to be a vegetarian. I eat mostly vegetables and grains. Now, I’m not so strict at that, and I also eat a small amount of  fish during any given week. Also, away from home, when served it, I will eat poultry. But, to get some animal protein on a regular basis,  I eat cheese and eggs. I'm just anxious to find the best eggs I can from chickens that haven’t been brutally abused. The options, unfortunately, aren’t so clear. My personal decision has been to buy only cage-free eggs, even though I pay up to 2 dollars more per dozen. I’d rather eat fewer eggs per week than accept the conditions of battery-caged hens. But, I’m poised to take further action….

Raising chickens may be the solution
Unless you’re ready to accept the high price of eggs from (hopefully) more humanely raised hens, you might consider having a few chickens in your yard. Anyone who has ever been around chickens knows they exhibit many complex and entertaining behaviors. They appear to be sensitive and intelligent animals, and it’s a crying shame that so many of them are forced to lead such terrible lives.

The answer may be easier than you think. Hens, it turns out, are easy to care for and, when treated right, each will provide 4-5 good quality eggs per week. That means that, with an investment of a few cents and a little care, as few as 3 hens can give you at least 12-15 eggs a week. That’s quite a savings over commercial prices. Home-raised eggs are indisputably better in flavor, texture and nutritional value. Your hens also keep down the weeds and eat harmful insects. Their needs are simple - a shelter at night, a watering can and a feed trough. They can get sunlight, insects (their favorite meal) and exercise on their own.

If you’re in a place where you could possibly keep some chickens, you should seriously consider this option. While local residential zoning may differ, most cities allow hens to be kept for eggs  for home consumption.

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