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Jul 152009

By Melissa Segrest
Green Right Now

A robin may be the mascot for the Red Robin restaurant chain, but chickens are the birds getting a big break from the company.

Red Robin Gourmet Burgers has more than 300 company-owned restaurants, and they are swiftly moving away from the use of eggs produced by hens that live in torturous conditions at factory farms across the country.

Photo: Humane Society of the United States

Hens in ‘battery cages’ by Compassion Over Killing

Right now, about one-third of the eggs in the Red Robin supply chain are “cage-free,” and they intend to have 100 percent of the eggs they serve come from cage-free hens by 2010, the company says.

Red Robin is moving quickly, but other large restaurant chains – Burger King, Denny’s, Wendy’s, Quiznos, Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. among them — are moving away from eggs produced by hens kept in “battery cages.”

The vast majority of factory farm chickens in America – about 280 million – live in those cruel cages, according to the Humane Society of the United States. Battery doesn’t refer to electricity, but rather to the large number, or “battery,” of chickens crammed together in a mesh enclosure the size of a file drawer. Each hen’s living space is the size of a piece of letter-size paper. The birds cannot stand, stretch their wings, walk or nest. Their cages are stacked one atop the other in warehouse-sized buildings. They live this way for more than a year, then they are slaughtered.

The horrible conditions lead to slowed production and illness, so they are usually killed before they turn 2. A laying hen’s normal lifespan is 7 years.

The Humane Society has a video on the subject, if you can stomach it.

Those birds are among the most abused animals in the factory farm industry, said Paul Shapiro, senior director of the Factory Farming Campaign of the national Humane Society.

Photo: Humane Society of the United States

‘Cage-free’ egg farm

“Cage-free hens are able to walk around, spread their wings, lay eggs in nests,” he said. They are still enclosed, but it is a huge improvement over battery cages. “Red Robin has taken an important step toward improving animal welfare in their supply chain,” Shapiro said.

American companies started to eschew battery cage eggs in 2005, when the Whole Foods grocery chain refused to sell them, he said. “Then Trader Joe’s (another large grocery chain) implemented a policy to make their private label eggs cage-free. Ben & Jerry’s, which uses eggs in every carton of ice cream, has committed to going 100 percent cage-free. We’ve also seen a number of universities and high schools – nearly 400 in the U.S. – go partially to entirely with cage-free eggs in their cafeterias.”

Wolfgang Puck only uses meat and eggs from animals raised under strict welfare codes. Even Walmart is offering cage-free eggs.

This May, the big fish of fast food, McDonald’s, said it is launching a study aimed at creating alternative, more humane forms of hen housing, according to media reports. Unfortunately, that doesn’t translate into a swift change to cruelty-free eggs, but it’s a start.

The demand for cage-free eggs is forcing the egg industry to adapt. “A few years ago, 98 percent of egg-laying hens were in battery cages. Now that number is 94 percent,” Shapiro said, and that percentage will continue to drop. “We’ve seen that most egg producers now have both cage and cage-free production. Before, that wasn’t the case.”

Photo: Humane Society of the United States

Pig in ‘gestational crate’

Susan Lintonsmith joined Red Robin in 2007 as chief marketing officer, and she worked to establish an animal welfare policy. Consumers were getting more concerned with the way factory farm animals are treated, so Red Robin paired with groups such as the Humane Society of the U.S. to develop their policy.

How many eggs are we talking about? Red Robin said they serve about 4.2 million eggs a year.

On their corporate Web site, Burger King says they used cage-free eggs on more than 2 million Croissan’wich breakfast sandwiches. They would use more, but they cite limited commercial supply (a complaint reiterated by other large food retailers).

It’s not just hens who are hurting. Other animals raised for food are subjected to “intensive confinement” practices in America’s factory farms. Pigs destined for the kitchen or restaurant are forced to live in “gestation crates” – small, 2-foot-wide cages barely larger than the pig’s body, the Humane Society’s Shapiro said. “The pigs are confined in that space for several months while they are pregnant. They are unable to even turn around,” he said.

“This type of cruelty has been criminalized in six states and the entire European Union has banned it as well,” Shapiro said.

The first state to take action was California. In November of last year, voters there resoundingly backed – with 63.5 percent of the vote — an initiative to prevent animal farm cruelty. Their law says that certain animals on farms much have room to stand up, move around and stretch their limbs.

Photo: Humane Society of the United States

Pigs in ‘group housing’

For pigs, the new living conditions are referred to as “group housing,” where they are kept in pens that allow them to walk around.

That translates into nearly 20 million hens, pigs and calves with improved living conditions. “That’s the biggest advancement for farm animals in U.S. history,” said Erin Williams, a spokesperson for the Humane Society. Another five states have begun to take steps against these inhumane environments.

Even though retailers are talking more about cruelty-free food from farms, and leaning on producers to change their processes, battery cages and gestation crates are still the predominant form of animal containment in America.

Photo: Humane Society of the United States
Veal calves in small crates

Pressure has been on veal producers for years, to the point that the top two veal producers in the nation have stopped holding calves in 2-foot-wide wooden crates where they’re chained by the neck and can’t turn. Their muscles atrophy to the point that many cannot walk. Those veal factory farms now have calves living in group housing, where they can move around and socialize.

Lest you think that a move to “cage-free” or “group housing” environments is akin to life on Old MacDonald’s Farm, Shapiro cautions that these roomier facilities do not mean that the animals are living “cruelty-free.” They are still contained, not free to roam large or outdoor spaces. They suffer other cruel treatment at the hands of large factory farms.

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