Replacing One Cage With Another

In 2007, Peter Singer, as part of a campaign to promote cage-free eggs, praised the Europeans for supposedly phasing out battery cages: “Battery cages are being phased out in Europe – why are we lagging behind?”

As I noted at the time, Singer’s connecting the European effort with cage-free egg farming was misleading:

[A]lthough the European Union has banned the traditional battery cage as of 2012 . . . . egg producers are free under the European ban to use “enriched cages,” which even conservative animal welfare organizations, such as Compassion in World Farming, maintain “fail to overcome many of the welfare problems inherent in the battery cage system.”

I wrote a subsequent essay on the EU “ban,” and, in 2010, I discussed it in my book, The Animal Rights Debate: Abolition or Regulation?, which I co-authored with Professor Robert Garner. It’s not a “ban” at all.

Well, the supposed “ban” on battery cages supposedly came into force on January 1, 2012.

And Peter Singer is excited about it.

In a CNN article entitled, “Singer: Europe’s ethical eggs,” Singer offers profuse praise:

The start of this year is a moment to celebrate a major advance in animal welfare, and, therefore, for Europe, a step towards becoming a more civilized and humane society – one that shows its concern for all beings capable of suffering. It is also an occasion for celebrating the effectiveness of democracy, and the power of an ethical idea.

Wow. Those Europeans have struck a significant blow for animals and for civilization as a general matter.

Or have they?

Put aside that, despite the supposed “ban,” there are about 84 million hens still in the traditional battery cage, with about 300,000 in Britain. Put aside also that cage-free egg production also involves torture and animal exploitation: cage-free eggs involve cramming thousands of birds into one big cage where they live a miserably hideous life that ends in the same miserably hideous slaughterhouse. The “gold standard” of hen exploitation is the “free-range” system, and that also involves the torture (and, of course, killing) of animals.

But, although Singer refers to the EU measure as a “ban on battery cages,” the EU “ban” does not ban battery cages. Yes, producers can use cage-free or free-range systems (which still involve torture, death, and exploitation), but they are not required to do so. What are they required to do?

Replace one cage with another cage: the “enriched” cage. Battery hens are still battery hens. The cage is larger, with nesting boxes and a scratching post.

According to an article in Ecologist: “Battery egg hens still face hell as ‘enriched’ cages phased in”. And here is a video of “enriched cages” that was provided in the Ecologist article:

(Note: This video is from an organization that promotes “happy” exploitation and that I do not support.)

Look at the video. “Europe’s ethical eggs,” eh?

It is interesting to note that, in 2002, Compassion in World Farming issued a report, “LAID BARE…The Case Against Enriched cages in Europe” about how terrible “enriched” cages are and how they fail to address the welfare issues raised by the traditional battery cage. But that was then and now is now and big animal groups like CIWF need to be able to declare a victory even when there isn’t one. And so, CIWF is joining with Singer declaring victory and praising the EU “ban” that is not a ban.

I have in my writing cautioned against the use of the word “ban” to apply to welfare reforms, using as an example that a requirement of a larger cage could be characterized, very wrongly in my view, as a “ban” on the smaller cage. On that interpretation, anything could be construed as a “ban.” The EU “ban” on battery cages is a dramatic example of the problem I identified.

But what is so terribly tragic about all of this is that the so-called “father of the animal rights movement” regards the products of tortured animals to be “ethical eggs.” Even if, like Singer, you think that chickens do not have a morally significant interest in living and that killing them for human purposes is not itself morally wrong (a key point of disagreement between me and Singer), how could you possibly regard the EU “ban” that is not a ban as an indication that Europe has stuck a blow for civilization?

The EU “ban” is not doing anything to make our culture more civilized. It is, however, furthering the very dangerous idea that there are “compassionate” ways to torture and exploit nonhuman animals. The “ban” is furthering the idea that continuing to consume eggs is morally defensible as long as we eat “ethical eggs” that have been laid by hens who are in an “enriched” cage or who are otherwise being tortured.

The egg industry is, I am sure, very grateful to Singer and to all of those welfarists who are cheerleading for the idea that we can be “ethical” while we consume eggs, just as the meat and dairy industries are delighted about the endorsement and active promotion of the “happy” meat and animal products movement. This is an example of what I refer to as the “partnership” that animal advocates have with institutionalized animal exploiters. There need not be an explicit agreement of partnership, although in many cases exploiters and animal advocates conduct joint campaigns; animal advocates give “awards” to institutionalized users, promote “happy” meat/dairy labels, etc. All that is necessary is that animal advocates promote what is ultimately best for industry and what will perpetuate, as a social matter, the consumption and exploitation of nonhuman animals.

If anyone thinks that measures such as the EU “ban,” and the fact that animal advocates are campaigning for and praising such measures, are doing anything but making the public more comfortable about consuming animals and animal products, I disagree. No one can credibly deny that Singer’s comments are not an explicit endorsement for “Europe’s ethical eggs.” No one can deny that such an endorsement will matter to those who care about the issue of animal exploitation and are looking for a way to continue to exploit animals “compassionately.” Singer and other supporters of this “ban” and similar measures have just provided the moral license.

There are no “ethical” eggs (or meat or cheese or dairy or whatever) just as there was no “ethical” slavery and just as there is no “ethical” discrimination of any sort.

The EU “ban” that is not a ban is the result of what welfarists acknowledge as “decades of campaigning”. Think of all the time and labor and money that have gone into this one campaign. Now imagine what would have happened if, during those same decades, animal advocates had been promoting a clear, unequivocal vegan message. Would the world be vegan? No, of course not. But there would be many more vegans and the social discourse on this issue would necessarily have been focused on the use of animals as a cultural practice, rather than on the ways in which we can “compassionately” torture and kill sentient nonhumans.

I leave you with a brief poem written by British satirist Spike Milligan (1918-2002):

Rage in Heaven

If a robin redbreast in a cage
Puts all heaven in a rage
How feels heaven when
Dies the millionth battery hen?


If you are not vegan, please consider going vegan. It’s a matter of nonviolence. Being vegan is your statement that you reject violence to other sentient beings, to yourself, and to the environment, on which all sentient beings depend.

The World is Vegan! If you want it.

Gary L. Francione
Professor, Rutgers University

©2012 Gary L. Francione