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December 10, 2009

Your Lunch Money: USDA Spends Millions on Spent Hens

I’ve written recently about the fact that agribusiness has always been able to look to USDA to buy up its products when there’s more supply on the market than consumers demand. For example, when the pig industry overproduces, USDA steps in with millions of dollars to buy up pork, dumps it on our nation’s children through the National School Lunch Program, and requires nothing from the industry in terms of improved performance or standards. It’s a government give-away to the industry—with the subsidy serving to reward bad behavior.

Journalists Blake Morrison, Peter Eisler and Anthony DeBarros of USA Today yesterday reported on another USDA purchasing program that serves Big Agriculture—in this case, purchasing meat for federal food programs from “spent” egg-laying hens.

Egg-laying hens confined in battery cage
Compassion Over Killing

The egg industry confines about 280 million laying hens in tiny battery cages for more than 12-18 months at a time. Nearly half of them get killed each year. The long-term immobilization of the animals takes a serious toll on them, especially on their skeletal systems. In fact, in part because of their lack of exercise and their excessive egg production, the vast majority of “spent” battery hens suffer from osteoporosis.

Few people want to eat the meat from these birds, as their fragile bones break easily and splinter into their flesh. Research has shown that as many as 24 percent of hens suffer broken bones following commercial “depopulation,” or removal from their cages. Of hens transported for slaughter, as many as 98 percent of carcasses have broken bones by the time they reach the end of the evisceration line.

It used to be cliché to say spent hens become Campbell's soup. However, it’s been many years since major soup companies wanted such meat. Yet the egg industry is still determined to remain on the USDA dole—and the government seems quite prepared to market food products to school children and others dependent on federal food programs that many companies long ago decided were unfit or otherwise unacceptable for their paying customers.

Chad Gregory, senior vice president of the United Egg Producers (UEP), asserts, “Due to losing market options, the U.S. government purchase programs for school lunch, military and prisons have become the largest single buyer of spent hen meat.”

Chad’s father, Gene Gregory, president and CEO of the UEP, explains in greater detail: “[W]e seldom acknowledge how important a customer the USDA Agriculture Marketing Service (AMS) Procurement Branch is to the egg industry. The USDA purchases for school lunch and other domestic food nutrition assistance programs are valuable sales for the egg industry. … USDA is an important buyer of light fowl meat. Based on UEP’s estimate, USDA purchased the meat from approximately 16.7 million light hens in calendar year 2006. This represented approximately 30% of all spent hens processed by U.S. fowl slaughter plants.”

So what’s the USDA’s excuse for dumping millions of pounds of this unwanted product on school kids? The agency explains: “Egg producers have been unable to dispose of egg laying hens in sufficient numbers because fowl processors cannot increase normal markets for fowl meat.” It’s that kind of thinking that leads many of us to conclude that USDA is more a promoter of big agribusiness than a protector of consumers or animal welfare.

So instead of letting the market take its course, the USDA supplements the profits of battery cage egg producers with millions in buy-up programs—compromising food safety in the process. In fact, at least one study shows that spent hen carcasses are several times more likely to be infected with salmonella than the carcasses of chickens bred for meat production.

One year into a new administration, it’s time to rethink these archaic programs. Big agriculture is deregulated. It causes major animal cruelty, environmental problems, and public health threats. And it gets billions in subsidies.

That equation doesn’t add up, and it’s time for change.

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