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Europe’s Ethical Eggs

On the first day of 2012, keeping hens in tiny battery cages became illegal throughout the EU – a major advance in animal welfare, and therefore, for Europe, a step towards becoming a more civilized and humane society. But why is Europe so far ahead of other countries in its concern for animals?

PRINCETON – Forty years ago, I stood with a few other students in a busy Oxford street handing out leaflets protesting the use of battery cages to hold hens. Most of those who took the leaflets did not know that their eggs came from hens kept in cages so small that even one bird – the cages normally housed four – would be unable to fully stretch and flap her wings. The hens could never walk around freely, or lay eggs in a nest.

Many people applauded our youthful idealism, but told us that we had no hope of ever changing a major industry. They were wrong.

On the first day of 2012, keeping hens in such cages became illegal, not only in the United Kingdom, but in all 27 countries of the European Union. Hens can still be kept in cages, but they must have more space, and the cages must have nest boxes and a scratching post. Last month, members of the British Hen Welfare Trust provided a new home for a hen they named “Liberty.” She was, they said, among the last hens in Britain still living in the type of cages we had opposed.

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