In the NYTimes today, Nicholas Kristoff asks just the wrong question "Is an egg for breakfast worth this?" Of course, it isn't, but that's not the right way to frame this. Nothing about an egg for breakfast could be worth this in terms of animal cruelty, human health or any number of other considerations:
"It's physically hard to breathe because of the ammonia" rising from manure pits below older barns, said the investigator, who would not allow his name to be used because that would prevent him from taking another undercover job in agriculture. He said that when workers needed to enter an older barn, they would first open doors and rev up exhaust fans, and then rush in to do their chores before the fumes became overwhelming.
Mice sometimes ran down egg conveyer belts, barns were thick with flies and manure in three barns tested positive for salmonella, he said. (Actually, salmonella isn't as rare as you might think, turning up in 3 percent of egg factory farms tested by the Food and Drug Administration last year.)
In some cases, 11 hens were jammed into a cage about 2 feet by 2 feet. The Humane Society says that that is even more cramped than the egg industry's own voluntary standards -- which have been widely criticized as inadequate.
An automatic feeding cart that runs between the cages sometimes decapitates hens as they're eating, the investigator said. Corpses are pulled out if they're easy to see, but sometimes remain for weeks in the cages, piling up until they have rotted into the wiring, he added.
Other hens have their heads stuck in the wire and are usually left to die, the investigator said.
Anyone who doesn't know that factory egg and poultry production is a nightmare - a nightmare of cruelty to chickens, contamination of your food, a nightmare of manure and dead animal disposal issues that threaten human health is not paying attention. Eating commercial chicken or eggs is an act of willful blindness, and the investigation into Kreider farms is just par for the course.
This information has been available to everyone in the US for a decade and more, and promulgated in media, film, etc... Anyone who cares even a tiny bit about what they eat knows this. Most people who do not are actively choosing not to know.
The good news is that there's no need for such a hideous trade-off as Kristoff implies - factory chicken production is not at all the only option if you like an egg with your breakfast. Raising chickens humanely is pretty easy, actually. And, of course, the eggs are also better for,you, more delicious, the chicken's manure helps grow other delicious, healthy food, and the chickens have good, happy, healthy lives.
All you have to do is never buy eggs or poultry from anyone who raises a million or even half a million chickens a year. You can do this any number of ways. First, you could have your own two or three hens, and have an egg for breakfast any time you want, some for baking and the pleasure of living lawn ornaments roaming around your yard. All you need is a very simple house, a bit of space for them to run, and friendly zoning laws - and you can work on those. If you don't have all those things, you may be able to develop some of them - point out that legalization of backyard hens is a growing trend, or work with a community organization to support using shared space for a few hens, or split them with the neighbor.
Or you could buy eggs from your neighbor, if any raise hens. It is increasingly likely that you can find a neighbor with hens who would like to sell a few eggs to support their poultry habit. Perhaps you live somewhere with a small farm nearby or pass one of those signs that say "eggs." Next time you have a minute, turn down that driveway or stop by and look at how the hens are kept. It is extraordinarily unlikely that someone with a cardboard sign saying "eggs" has 11 chickens to a cage, or that any of them are regularly decapitated by equipment. If you can smell it before you see it, don't buy eggs from them - buy from someone else. Remember, every dollar you spend is a vote for the world you want to live in - don't waste them.
No neighbors with hens, or they are fresh out? Check out your local farmer's market, CSA or coop - and ask questions. Odds are good the farmers there raise their chickens like we do - with full free range access to the world, plenty of grass and fresh air, lots of space and all the time in the world to do what chickens like to do - scratch, peck, eat bugs, dust bathe and lay. But if they mention battery cages or confinement, run like the wind - life is too short to eat those eggs. Plus, they suck. The taste isn't as good, the yolks aren't orange, they don't stand up fresh and new. So don't bother.
What you shouldn't do is buy the plastic-packed "free range" eggs from some giant corporation at your supermarket. Those "free-ranged" chickens probably don't ever go outside, and their quarters stink as badly and their manure is a huge deal.
Nobody needs to put 1 or 4 or 10 million chickens in one place - there simply is no reason for it, when you can have 300,000 households with 3 chickens each, and 100,000 farms with 100 chickens each ranging over them.
Are inhumane and dangerous conditions only a function of industrial production? No, there will always be a need to know the truth about where your food comes from, and small farmers can be terrible farmers. But industrial production BY ITS VERY NATURE is inhumane - it can't be anything else. That is, in fact, the defense that Krieder farms makes - that such things are inevitable, and that they aren't doing anything differently than anyone else.
In order to eat animal products ethically, we must choose to know where our food comes from. We will pay a little more (I'm selling my eggs for four bucks a dozen these days). The eggs don't have to come off our plate, though - the chickens simply have to come into the light.