RU dining in the dark about factory produced eggs

Everyone's doing it. Princeton is doing it just down the road. UConn, UMass and about 150 other universities are doing it, as is Google, not to mention Ben and Jerry's, McDonald's and Burger King. These corporate giants, colleges and universities are protecting the environment, reducing needless animal cruelty and becoming pioneers by altering their purchasing patterns in regards to eggs. Instead of buying eggs produced by hens intensively confined in so-called "battery cages," they buy cage-free, "certified humane" eggs, insuring not only more humane treatment of the animals but also more environmentally-friendly industry practices and even, many claim, better-tasting eggs. If you are not aware of what a battery cage is, do not be alarmed. Prior to last January, I was not familiar with the term either. A battery cage is what millions of chickens are forced to call "home." Trust me, it is far from cozy.

So why isn't Rutgers doing it? Rutgers student and faculty group "Humane, Sustainable Planet" faults Rutgers Dining Chief Charles Sams for his lack of interest in cage-free eggs.

"Cage-free is a growing movement among consumers who care about sustainable environmental practices or unnecessary animal cruelty," says group member Alexander Roubian, a Rutgers 2008 graduate. "Dining just seems to be out of touch on this issue with what the students want for their money."

Battery eggs come from hens that live out their lives in barren wire cages into which they are packed so tightly that they cannot even move about or quietly stand still. The hen is prevented from expressing every one of her most critical comfort behaviors – perching, wing-flapping, standing erect, pecking to explore her environment, dust-bathing and forming a nest to lay an egg. The most visible results of these conditions are painful bone deterioration and breakage, open foot sores, patches bald of feathers, and compulsively repetitive behaviors. To ensure that the hens do not attack each other due to a lack of living space, the painful process of "debeaking," in which the hen's beak – a necessary means for survival – is literally chopped off. A suit recently filed by an animal welfare group against a battery-cage plant in northern New Jersey included photographs of dead hens whose heads were caught in the bars of the cages, resulting in prolonged death from starving and dehydration.

Pollution of local water and air from sheer quantity of animal waste plague the communities surrounding intensive animal-farming operations. Because battery-cage industry typically confines about four times as many birds in a given space as does a cage-free operation, degradation of the local environment is intense. Local, independent family farms cannot compete with these large, corporate-financed operations and are driven out of business, further disrupting local economies and the social fabric they support.

RU Dining has cited the higher cost of cage-free eggs. However, those corporations and universities who switched to cage-free eggs point out that the lower purchase price of battery eggs hides the real cost we all pay in environmental damage and animal cruelty. "This is why the European Union has banned battery cages in all the EU countries," says Roubian. This is why state universities all over the country have changed their policies. We want Rutgers to be known for being a leader in this area, for being a socially responsible school, not for being behind the curve."

Dr. Kevin Lyons, who teaches these issues on the Cook campus when he's not busy running Rutgers' Office of Environmental Purchasing, comments, "College students are often viewed as the harbingers of social change; college campuses are seen as a sort of message board for new ideas and forward thinking. Students are becoming more socially and environmentally conscious and thus more critical of the agricultural practices of the multi-national corporations and powerful lobbies that have replaced ‘Old MacDonald's' farm as the supplier to our tables. Many students find that one of the most effective ways to express their views is through their dietary choices, resulting in growing numbers of vegetarians, organic eaters, "locovores", eaters stressing locally-grown foods, and "cage-freers."

At student request, Rutgers has added vegetarian and vegan options to student menus. For some, this comes as the next logical step in a series of health-related and environmentally-conscious decisions. Students are also realizing that their individual decisions can actually make a difference, both on campus and in the real world.

"By demanding cage-free, ‘certified humane' eggs," says Roubian, "students are choosing to ‘vote with their dollars' for the kind of world they want by requesting eggs that come from egg producers which don't confine their hens to battery cages and allow them space to perch, flap their wings, peck and other normal hen behaviors. The access to these behaviors, though it seems small, makes all the difference in the quality of life of a laying hen."

By switching over to cage free eggs, Rutgers would show the rest of the world that they are innovators by having both global and student interests in mind. With more student and faculty support, a safer and a more humane environment can be attained. Hurry, time is running out.

For more information on Humane, Sustainable Planet, Alexander Roubian can be reached at aroubian@eden.rutgers.edu.

 Matthew Bassil and Samantha Galligan are Rutgers College class of 2008 alumni.


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