October 19, 2010

Experts Square Off Over Issues in Egg Production

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Recently, massive egg recalls due to salmonella outbreaks have prompted close examination of egg production practices. One aspect of the debate is over the production of eggs in a caged or caged free environment.

On Tuesday, the debate came up for discussion at Cornell.

In a debate titled “Cage-Free vs. Conventional Eggs,” Josh Balk, outreach director for The Humane Society of the United States, and Prof. Joe Regenstein, food science, squared off to discuss each side of the issue. The debate was sponsored by the Student Assembly’s Dining Committee and moderated by Jon Rau ’12, S.A. Dining Committee Chair.

Rau said that the “purpose in this debate was to stimulate conversations and keep an open mind.” The issue is especially pertinent in light of the fact that the University recently approached the issue and opted to continue the use of caged eggs in all dining halls.

To begin the debate, each presenter made a ten-minute presentation based on his or her side, which was then followed with time for discussion and debate between the two.

Regenstein argued that though the debate centered on caged or caged-free eggs, the flock size and the vaccination frequency was equally as important to the health of the hens and eggs.

He added that caged eggs have many added benefits, including protecting hens from soil-borne diseases, offering better overall health, producing safer eggs, allowing for daily visual inspections and facilitating egg production.

Most importantly, however, Regenstein maintained that the cost of producing cage-free eggs would be far too high.

“Going cage-free would raise the cost of producing eggs by about 40 percent,” he said.

Balk, on the other hand, responded to Regenstein’s arguments by painting a picture of what caged egg operations looked like and how they were more susceptible to disease-causing bacteria like salmonella.

His presentation featured a video documenting five different farms that featured caged-egg operations that were not well maintained, but remained approved by the United Egg Producers. He showed that ten out of ten recent studies found that caged egg production produced higher amounts of salmonella in eggs than its cage-free counterpart. He added that other studies have found that people that eat caged eggs are twice as likely to become sick with salmonella poisoning.

Apart from empirical studies, Balk also tried to appeal to the audience’s sense of morality.

“It’s cruel and inhumane to virtually immobilize hens for their entire lives,” he said.

“Each hen laying eggs for Cornell is given less space than a single piece of paper to live for her entire life,” Balk said. “These birds are crammed so tightly in small wire cages that they cannot even spread their wings.”

To this, Regenstein responded that Balk was appealing to anthropomorphic expectations.

“Birds don’t think like us; birds don’t function like us. They react to different things. If there is a thunderstorm, egg production decreases. If you wear red and walk around the hens, egg production decreases. When you put hens in cages, production increases,” Regenstein said.

Balk, however, had a response of his own to Regenstein’s arguments.

He said that all the Ivies, with the exception of Cornell and Brown –– which had initially switched to cage free, but found the price inhibiting –– transitioned to cage-free eggs, and that such a change only would cost approximately $20 extra for students’ meal plans.

Balk also stressed that such a transition could be partial, as Cornell could change a percentage of its egg supply to cage-free.

“This is minimal expense when the alternative is criminal animal cruelty,” he said.

While both remained respectful, each had criticisms of their counterpart’s presentation.

“His [Balk’s] argument is very well put together, but violated rational thinking, as the Humane Society is a vegetarian organization committed to eliminating animal agriculture,” Regenstein said.

He added that he believed the HSUS only references studies that support its own agenda.

Balk argued that “[Regenstein’s] presentation was an emotional plea to support a cruel and inhumane practice that’s being eliminated in our country.”

Cornell, for its part, has already opted to continue the use of caged eggs in its dining halls due to what it claims to be the cost of switching to cage-free eggs.

“I think the cost is too prohibitive. It’s a significant expense, and it’s only one item.  The United Auto Workers (the union for our cooks, dishwashers, and line servers) is raising prices. This is a mandatory, negotiated, and approved change.  The point I’m trying to make is that we have other expenses,” Gail Finan, director of Cornell Dining, said.

Finan also noted that other than a concerned alumnus, no students have shown much interest in the issue.  Other food issues, like the desire to add local foods throughout Cornell Dining, are more prevalent.

Students, chefs, and locals in the audience were satisfied with the great amount of information that they received from both parties, leaving them to draw their own personal conclusions.

“I thought it was a really great opportunity for students to come learn about a very important issue that affects student dining across campus,” Tracy Mandel ’12, president of Animal Advocates of Cornell, said. “It is an important issue that students can have a big impact on by connecting with the Student Assembly and a great opportunity for students to improve lives of animals.”

Original Author: Katerina Athanasiou