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A conveyor belt at Herbruck Egg Sales. Photo: Daniel Zwerdling

Changing the Egg Business (opens new window)
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It's standard practice to house at least eight hens into every cage. This photo is from a hen house not associated with McDonald's new animal welfare policies. Photo:

The Herbrucks are complying with McDonald's new standards, which are enforced by inspectors from the food industry. Photo: Daniel Zwerdling

PART I      Page  1  2  3  4  5  6

Cracking Down on Egg Suppliers

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Animal rights activists have been warning for decades that America's farms are cruel. They say that so-called factory farming abuses the cattle and hogs and chickens that eventually end up on your plate. Farmers and food industry executives have generally scoffed. But now an unlikely corporation is surprising farmers and critics alike, by taking the lead in the campaign for animal welfare. It's McDonald's. As Daniel Zwerdling reports, the trend suggests that the right forces at the right time can prod even the biggest companies to change.

Into the Hen House

Until a few months ago, the executives who run McDonald's would never have let you pass through this doorway:

"Are we ready to walk in?"

We're about to go into one of the hen houses that produce the eggs that McDonald's turns into breakfast. And company executives know that the typical hen house in America makes a rather disturbing sight. But McDonald's is pressuring farmers to change things now, and the company feels proud to show what they've done. As we enter the building, it looks more like a factory than a farm:

"So what we're looking at here is a conveyer with the eggs coming out of all the chicken houses that are here currently. As you can see, the eggs are going over our head," Herb Herbruck explains, pointing toward the other side of the hen house, "but this conveyer goes that way about a thousand feet."

Herb Herbruck and his brothers run this egg business, on a country road in Michigan. They've been supplying McDonald's for years, and it's an incredible operation. As we walk along the conveyor belt, we pass row after row of shelves that reach from the floor to way up near the ceiling. Every row disappears into the distance, they're four hundred feet long. And every shelf is stacked with wire cages filled with snow-white chickens. Steve Herbruck says their cages hold 1.4 million chickens, to be exact.

"The floors that the hens sit on are slightly sloped about 6 degrees. So there's a natural gravity and the eggs then roll out from under the hens onto a four-inch belt. There is somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 miles of four-inch belts on this site."

You're going to have to imagine what these hens used to look like, before McDonald's new policies took effect. We asked one of the most respected animal scientists in the country to explain it. Joy Mench runs the Center for Animal Welfare at the University of California.

She says first, let's talk about the crowding. Until a few months ago, the family that runs this farm crammed at least eight hens into every single cage and each cage is about the size of a drawer—20 inches wide, 19 inches deep. Mench says this is standard practice—some farmers put more hens than that.

"When there are eight birds in a cage this size, the bird barely has room to stand," Mench continues. "And even then she's really compressed. There are a lot of birds pressing against her and turning around is really difficult. And a really important thing about this as well, probably one of the main reasons that crowded hens experience a lot of illness, is there's not enough space for all the birds to feed at the same time. If you're a low ranking bird—low on the peck order—you tend to get pushed to the back during feeding and you can't get enough food. So quite often the lowest ranking bird in that cage gets sick and dies."

Second, Mench says, the hens you'd see on most egg farms wouldn't have any beaks. The farmers cut them off, so you'd see a hen face with a stump. Farmers do that because when chickens get crowded together, they develop abnormal behavior, they can peck each other to death. But Mench says studies show that when you cut off their beaks, the hens suffer their whole lives.

"Chickens explore their environment with their beaks. They like to pick things up and that's their main way of exploring and touching and feeling things."

So cutting off their beaks is a big deal if you're a hen?

"It's definitely a big deal, " says Mench.

And Mench says here's another big deal: Most farmers take away all the birds' food when the hens are about one year old. The hens literally have nothing to eat for as long as two weeks. Industry researchers developed this method in the 1950s and 60s. The birds get all skinny and quiet, and they lose their feathers. Then the farmers suddenly start feeding them again; and it shocks the birds' system, and they lay eggs better for a while. The industry calls the practice "forced molting." Mench describes it from another perspective.

"The bird is starved? Yes, the bird is starved. I don't like to see hungry animals not being given food."

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