Photo via Jen Zajac

There’s something very soothing about ordering the cage-free or organic eggs with your breakfast, or encouraging friends and loved ones to buy them. It’s nice to think that the eggs that you’re eating come from happy little chickens roaming around in their little yard, eating only the healthiest food and living contently with their brothers and sisters.

But the reality might not be so charming.

Of course, while many farms do provide the best care for their chickens, it can’t be said of all of them. Why? Cage-free conditions aren’t mandated by an explicit organic code.

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.”

While it’s clear that the regulations have the best intentions, they’re still wide open to interpretation. There’s no amount of space each chicken must have, there’s no definition of what “outdoors, shade, shelter, exercise areas” really means. It’s all a bit… vague.

And a group of radical animal-rights activists, Direct Action Everywhere, are determined to show the farms that are taking advantage of the USDA’s vague regulations to provide less than favorable environments for their chickens.

10 times over 18 months Direct Action Everywhere has snuck into the facilities of a large operation – Petaluma Poultry – which supplies the likes of Whole Foods and Organic Valley.

The Petaluma egg facility produces both certified-organic and non-organic “cage-free” eggs – the main difference being that the certified-organic eggs must come from hens that are fed organic feed only.

While the video does show chickens in less than favorable conditions, it should be mentioned that Direct Action Everywhere seem to be anti-animal farming as a whole, and therefore their point of view is more extreme than those of us who aren’t anti-animal farming.

However, the footage doesn’t lie.

The video, taken from within the Petaluma facilities, shows lots of birds crammed in tightly together, amidst what looks like significant build-up of their own waste, with rashes, missing feathers, and even self-inflicted mutilation.

The animal rights activists take one particularly unhealthy-looking bird to a vet, who states that the bird must have been in this shape for weeks to have deteriorated so much.

Trigger warning: Animal cruelty
[youtube]http://youtu.be/yU4PJCuslD0[/youtube]

In response to the video, 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 video takes place at night (when most domesticated chickens go inside anyways) so we don’t see the chicken’s environment by day. The Mahrts do claim that they have “sun porches for outdoor access while protecting from predators and disease.”

However, this sun porch appears to be a raised, triangular space jutting off the side of the building, made of chicken wire. So while the chickens never actually touch the ground outside, their “outdoor access” conforms to the letter of USDA regulations.

Screenshot via Petaluma Farms
Screenshot via Petaluma Farms

Doesn’t seem so humane now, does it?

This isn’t the first time Petaluma has come under fire for their mistreatment of animals. Michael Pollan, in his book the Omnivore’s Dilemma, famously used it as an example of industrial-organic farming. Pollan observed that its poultry buildings “don’t resemble a farm so much as a barracks.”

But that’s not all.

Last year, Petaluma settled a lawsuit that meant they had to remove the depiction of its hens on a green field and the language that they used implying the hens received 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.”

Both Direct Action Everywhere and Petaluma are extremes on either end of the debate. I don’t doubt that there are plenty of humane certified farms out there. And Petaluma is clearly an example of how loophole allow these laws and regulations to be manipulated. However, I don’t agree with Direct Action Everywhere’s general philosophy that all animal farms are violent and cruel.

What this video does is shine a light on the reality of the egg-production industry. Marketing jargon can often be misleading, and this video highlights the importance that we should place on knowing exactly where our food comes from.

Buy locally if you can, from farmers that you know and trust. And if not, do your research before you commit to buying from any particular brand.