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February 25, 2010

Force for Change: Our Factory Farming Campaign

Any sort of meaningful social change is a struggle—a struggle between the old and the new ways of thought and behavior, and even economic activity. Women’s suffrage and the post-war civil rights movement took decades of active campaigning in the United States before transformative progress was had. Along the way, the leaders of these efforts were belittled, and sometimes literally beaten down. Change on this level is never easy, and it is never self-executing.

That’s certainly true when speaking about a fundamental realignment in our treatment of animals. No serious-minded advocate for social reform in this realm could possibly think this sort of change would be easy. Old ways of viewing animals as commodities and objects are stubborn, and so are many of the people who defend the status quo. When we created a factory farming campaign here at The HSUS five years ago, I knew we’d be taking on some of the toughest battles the animal protection movement had ever seen, not only because of the vast number of animals exploited by the factory farming industry, but also because of the enormous financial and political influence of the agribusiness sector as a whole.

Battery caged-hens in Ohio
Mercy For Animals
Battery caged-hens in Ohio.

I’ve often thought of the misery of caged egg-laying hens as emblematic of factory farming—treating the birds, in this case, as production machines. It must be agonizing to live in a space so small you can’t even fully extend your limbs for more than a year before being killed.

I tasked our then-new campaign with the charge of addressing the most severe abuses within the sector, particularly the intensive confinement systems, knowing full well that it would take years to see reform. With 280 million laying hens in the nation—nearly all of whom were in cages so restrictive they couldn’t even spread their wings—change wouldn’t come overnight. But with each seemingly small victory along the way, hundreds, or even thousands of fewer birds would be forced to endure the suffering of almost permanent immobilization.

Fortunately, our campaign is having a major impact, and I can see industry-wide change ahead. Not only have two large egg production states—California and Michigan—passed laws phasing out cage confinement of laying hens, but this past week alone, we’ve seen two major corporate announcements that move us in the right direction.

Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest grocer, announced that all of its private brand of eggs are now cage-free. And Hellmann’s mayonnaise, a company that uses hundreds of millions of eggs annually in North America, announced it has converted all of Hellmann’s Light to cage-free (meaning approximately 125,000 fewer hens in battery cages), and is committed to converting the rest of Hellmann’s mayonnaise to cage-free as well, meaning well more than a million fewer birds will ever know the confines of a battery cage.

While cage-free hens may not be able to go outside, they can walk, spread their wings, and lay their eggs in nests—all behaviors permanently denied to hens crammed into battery cages. And they generally have two to three times more space per bird than caged hens—a significant improvement from the bird’s perspective, for sure.

The thought that such major egg users would be taking these important steps away from cage confinement would have seemed unrealistic at best five years ago. But progress begets progress, as the first of a group of farmers, retailers, and scientists showed us a new way and provided an example for all.

Our factory farming campaign knows it’s time to continue to press ahead with this effort, especially now that the entire European Union has moved so decisively in this direction—with a population base one and a half times as large as ours. We are working with local organizations and advocates in Ohio—the nation’s second largest egg-producing state with a population of nearly 27 million caged laying hens—to follow the lead of other states and phase out some of the most inhumane intensive confinement systems, including battery cages. If you live in the Buckeye state, please sign up to join us at our upcoming campaign kick-off events throughout the state. This sort of change occurs only when good people stand up and get involved.

We will stay on the case, and we hope you’ll stick with us, too. We need your voice and your support more than ever.

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