What Does “Cage-Free” Even Mean?


What kind of farm do you imagine when you think of organic or cage-free eggs? Images of hens frolicking in lush meadows?

That kind of farming exists, but such conditions aren’t mandated by organic code—not explicitly anyway. According to the USDA regulations, animals raised organically must have “year-round access … to the outdoors, shade, shelter, exercise areas, fresh air, clean water for drinking, and direct sunlight, suitable to the species, its stage of life, the climate, and the environment.” Those rules are open to a wide variety of interpretations.,

Ten times over the course of a year and a half, under cover of night, a group of radical animal-rights activists snuck into the facilities of a large operation called Petaluma Farms, a major west-coast supplier to Whole Foods and Organic Valley, according to The New York Times. The Petaluma egg complex produces both certified-organic and non-organic “cage free” eggs, the main difference between the two standards being that organic eggs must come from hens fed only organic feed.

The video shows birds with blisters, missing feathers, one clearly caked with shit.

The group, Direct Action Everywhere, seems to find all animal farming abhorrent—a point driven home in the video’s first third, wherein several group members denounce the killing of animals. Later, footage taken from within the Petaluma facilities shows lots of birds wallowing tightly together, often amidst what looks like significant buildup of their own waste. The narrators use words like “stench, ” “filth,” and “misery” to describe the scene; and show several birds in obvious bad health—birds with blisters, missing feathers, one clearly caked with shit—along with birds that appear to be in decent shape. The crew dramatically rescues one pathetically injured bird, handing her over the fence, one activist to another, and whisking her to a vet in Berkeley, who declares her in dismal shape.

In a media statement, Petaluma owners Judy and Steve Mahrt wrote that “The video in no way reflects our practices or the overall health of our flocks.” As for outside access, the statement adds the company maintains “sun porches for outdoor access while protecting from predators and disease.” All the filming in the video takes place at night, when most domesticated chickens go inside, anyway. So the video doesn’t tell us anything about the birds’ outdoor access.

Pressed for details, the company referred me to the below video. At about the 2:38 mark, there’s a depiction of one such sun porch—it’s a raised, triangular space jutting off the side of the building, made of chicken wire. By the company’s own admission, then, the birds never touch the ground outside—their “outdoor access” seems to conform to the letter of organic code, if not the spirit of organic farming conjured in the heads of consumers.

This is not Petaluma’s first PR problem. Michael Pollan famously used it as an example of industrial-organic farming in Omnivore’s Dilemma, observing that its meat-poultry buildings “don’t resemble a farm so much as a barracks,” and that the birds were conditioned to never make use of their access to outdoors. As for the company’s egg operation, Judy’s Family Farm, Pollan never got a look: “The company was too concerned about biosecurity to let a visitor get past the office.”

Last year, Petaluma settled a lawsuit brought by the Animal Legal Defense Fund over the depiction of the lives of its hens on its packaging. As part of the agreement, in which Petaluma did not admit to wrongdoing, the company agreed to modify its egg cartons “by removing the illustration of hens on a green field and removing the language that Plaintiff alleged could lead consumers to mistakenly believe the eggs come from hens with significant outdoor access.” Previously, the inside of the cartons claimed that “these hens are raised in wide-open spaces in Sonoma Valley, where they are free to roam, scratch, and play.”

A “sun porch” at a Petaluma Farms facility—the “access to outdoors” required by organic code. Screenshot from the video, above, provided by Petaluma Farms

So what’s to be taken away from the Direct Action Everywhere video? I see it as an important but problematic look behind the veil of what Pollan has deemed “supermarket pastoral”—the gauze of marketing that cloaks the often-harsh realities of large-scale organic farming.

Yet compared to the vast Iowa facilities that triggered a half-billion-egg salmonella recall in 2010 (the Food and Drug Administration’s stomach-turning post-outbreak inspection report can be found here), the Petaluma houses captured on tape by Direct Action Everywhere actually look pretty good. When you confine thousands of birds into a building and manage several buildings, problems like the ones caught on tape by DAE are going to arise. I’d feel better about Petaluma if it represented standard practice for industrial egg production, and not the rarefied status implied by organic certification.