Europe’s Ethical Eggs

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.

In the early 1970’s, when the modern animal-liberation movement began, no major organization was campaigning against the battery cage. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the mother of all animal-protection organizations, had lost its early radicalism long before. It focused on isolated cases of abuse, and failed to challenge well-established ways of mistreating animals on farms or in laboratories. It took a concerted effort by the new animal radicals of the 1970’s to stir the RSPCA from its complacency towards the battery cage and other forms of intensive animal rearing.