Everyone has seen labels on the eggs they buy in grocery stores like “organic” or “free-range.” What most people don’t know is that these loosely defined labels are often fig leaves that cover for the brutal abuse of animals.
But a new lawsuit by animal advocates may have changed all that, pressuring the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Monday into creating new labeling standards that require egg producers to be honest about what they do to egg-laying chickens.
Egg production is an almost entirely unregulated industry under federal law; a series of special provisions in major animal welfare legislation allows the egg industry to raise egg hens however they please. For example, the Humane Slaughter Act — the principal federal animal welfare law for farm animals — explicitly exempts poultry from the bill’s protections.
The result is an impossibly cruel farm system, where 95 percent of American chickens are raised in tiny, crammed cages that slice their feet, atrophy their muscles and slowly drive them insane. 25 states allow the poultry industry to define “customary” animal welfare practices however it likes to escape animal cruelty laws. One visitor to an egg “farm” saw mummified dead birds crowded in with live birds in tiny cages, thirsty and filthy birds, among other horrors.” A few plants even force their hens to undergo what’s called “forced molting,” depicted in the image above, where hens are starved until they lose their feathers in order to marginally improve egg production and quality.
Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of Americans don’t want to spend their money subsidizing a system that confines hens so cruelly. As a consequence, a complex labeling system has emerged to inform consumers about the humaneness of their various different egg options. Some of the labels, like “Animal Welfare Approved,” are stringent, third-party standards. Others, like “American Humane Certified” and “United Egg Producers Certified,” allow for precisely the sort of brutal caging these labels are ostensibly supposed to guide consumers away from. You can read a guide to the egg guides here.
The new lawsuit, filed by the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) and Compassion over Killing (CoK), may render such guides superfluous. The complaint argues that the FDA, by not forcing the industry to describe how eggs are produced in precise terms, is allowing the industry to willfully obscure the way it treats egg hens. As ALDF and CoK put it:
In spite of Congressional mandates, [federal] agencies have failed to take any action to regulate the often-misleading claims and deceptive imagery widely found on egg cartons. Even the United Egg Producers, the U.S. egg industry’s trade association, has endorsed federal legislation containing a similar labeling program.
Under the lawsuit’s petitioned action, egg producers nationwide would be required to clearly label egg cartons with egg production methods, including the identification of “Eggs from Caged Hens.” Co-plaintiffs in the lawsuit include several Bay Area egg consumers who have relied on deceptive egg carton labeling in their efforts to purchase eggs from hens not confined in cages.
On Monday, the FDA caved to the legal pressure. ALDF and CoK have stayed the lawsuit in response to the FDA’s decision to formally respond to a “federal rulemaking petition” on egg labeling by September of this year. Rulemaking petitions are requests from the general public and/or interest groups for a federal agency to change its administrative rules on a particular topic; there’s been an outstanding petition on egg labeling since 2006. The FDA is within its rights to deny the petition, so clearer egg labeling is by no means a given at this point.