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Book of Matthew: Considering cage-free eggs

Published: October 22, 2010
Section: Opinions


How do you like your eggs?

Most of the eggs produced in this country come not from farms but from factories, and the hens that lay them live not like animals but like machine parts on an assembly line.

Kept in cramped battery cages, these hens barely have enough room to stand, flap their wings or turn around. Many suffer from calcium deficiencies and other diseases that result from a life without sun or exercise. Those who survive long enough lay their eggs again and again—sometimes up to 250 times per year—until they are slaughtered and shredded into meat products.

Then, it’s off to the grocery store. Or, in our case, the campus dining halls.

Recently, the Brandeis Real Food Coalition has been pushing for dining services to sell cage-free eggs exclusively. The idea has a solid base of support. Students have had the opportunity to take three polls so far and all of them have shown that a majority supports such a change. Students even seem willing to pay $20 more for their meal plans, if necessary.

Currently, students only have the option to purchase cage-free eggs if they pay an extra charge that “fluctuates based on market factors.”

“Cage-free” certainly sounds humane. In fact, the sign in lower Usdan that reminds us of the cage-free option depicts a smiling flower that is somewhat reminiscent of San Francisco, circa 1969. Not very subtle. But are these eggs really good investments?

Actually, like most investments, it all depends on the details.

Allowing hens to exercise is a good thing. They stay healthier and lay better eggs. This in turn is safer for consumers. Studies published during the last five years have consistently demonstrated that cage-free hens are at a lower risk of salmonella than caged hens.

The problem, however, is that not all cage-free hens are treated equally. There isn’t even a legal definition for the term “cage-free.” So, whether hens are scampering around a giant barn or being stuffed in a small shed, as long as they aren’t in cages, their farmers can call the whole operation “cage-free.”

“Cage-free does not always mean cruelty-free,” admitted Real Food member Seth Grande, who has been one of the driving forces behind the cage-free campaign.

In a perfect world, Brandeis would serve “pastured eggs,” which are by far the best available. The hens that lay these eggs are raised in the most natural setting possible: on a pasture where they can roam freely, be exposed to the sun, and eat grass and insects to supplement their diets. The benefits of this method are surprisingly significant. Not only do the hens live vastly better lives than any other hens, but according to a 2007 test by Mother Earth News magazine, pastured eggs have less cholesterol and saturated fat than conventional eggs, while containing more omega-3’s, beta-carotene, and vitamins A and E.

So why don’t we go for broke and sell pastured eggs on campus? Because we don’t live in a perfect world. There are few, if any, farms that could supply several thousand hungry Brandeis students with pastured eggs for a reasonable price. As you can imagine, it takes a lot of land to give those hens adequate space, and we’re talking about a lot of hens.

All things considered, switching to cage-free eggs is probably our best option. But we need to stay involved in the process to ensure that it’s done properly.

According to Student Union President Daniel Acheampong, Aramark is willing to make the switch if enough students show that they support it and are willing to pay for it. But Acheampong also said that Aramark has yet to chose a cage-free egg supplier.

This is a key decision, and we need to make our concerns clear: Aramark must choose a cage-free egg supplier that cares about the health of its hens and allows them a degree of freedom that they could not have while locked in cages.

It’s a small step, but it’s a step in the right direction.