Congress must also encourage the U.S. Department of Agriculture to promulgate better regulations for alternatives to cage-based farming systems, such as free-range. With better regulations, the alternative labels will gain integrity, and thereby the potential for greater consumer support. The only existing well-regulated farming system that sometimes does give hens significant freedom is organic farming. Organic farms allow hens access to the outdoors, do not administer drugs, and only provide organically raised feed. Organic eggs can cost two to three times as much as conventional eggs, primarily due to the feed, and their cost is prohibitive for most interested consumers. The institution of free-range farming, however, has potential as a financially practical, humane compromise. The free-range label is used loosely today, but aims to describe farms that allow hens ample access to the outdoors in reasonable stocking densities (1 square meter per hen), while also allowing the use of drugs and any kind of feed. Research on free-range farms is sparse (largely because the term is so inconsistently defined), but estimates of their operating costs range from only 25 percent-50 percent greater than those of cage systems. These operating costs would likely fall even lower if free-range operations grew in size in response to a rise in demand. And that demand might indeed rise if the free-range operations were well-regulated enough for consumers to feel comfortable spending a little more to support them.
In light of the many grave problems facing our nation, legislation on a mundane subject like factory farming might sound too trivial to even acknowledge. But unlike most other pressing issues, the arguments and facts on all sides of the layer hen farming debate are relatively clear and certain. Federal legislation on hen welfare is in everyone’s best interest, and improved regulation of alternative farming systems will merely protect both consumers and farmers from misleading, dishonest marketing, and allow both parties more freedom of choice. The solutions are indisputable. All this industry needs is a little bit of legislative action.
Rustagi has been a resident of Maryland for over 20 years, and recently graduated from the University of Colorado, Boulder with an M.S. in Mechanical Engineering.