The better-dressed PETA clones at the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) have invested a tremendous amount of time and money in recent years persuading Americans that buying eggs from chickens kept in cages is inherently cruel. (Click here, here, here, here, and here for just a few examples.) Buying only so-called “cage-free” eggs, HSUS says, is a moral imperative if you care about the welfare of the animals that lay them. But new science coming out of Australia is leaving HSUS and its followers with considerable egg on their faces.
Scientists from the University of Sydney’s Poultry Research Unit tested the levels of stress hormones in eggs laid by caged chickens, and compared them with “free range” chickens and those raised in open barns (in conditions that HSUS promotes as kinder and gentler). The results? Lead researcher Dr. Jeff Downing told the Queensland Courier Mail that caged birds experienced no more stress than their un-cooped counterparts.
Given the animal rights hysteria surrounding chickens and eggs, how can this be?  London’s Telegraph explains:

Free-range hens suffer stresses that battery hens do not have to deal with … Mr. Downing added that free-range hens are prone to manure-borne diseases and parasites, that extreme temperatures are more stressful to hens than the method of their housing, and that caged hens have greater protection from both the elements and predators.

This is not the first study to find real-world problems with letting chickens out of their cages. In October 2003 researchers at Veterinary College of Hanover (in Germany) found that cage-free hens produced fewer eggs, are more susceptible to disease, and die prematurely twice as often. That doesn’t sound terribly “humane” to us.

Nor to London Times contributor Ross Clark, who observes that our “aesthetic” preferences may not line up with what’s best for chickens:

I don’t know where the notion that battery-farming is cruel came from, but it certainly didn’t arise from asking the birds … [I]f chickens are even slightly like humans the last thing they would want to do, to use the fashionable expression from animal welfare regulations, is to “express natural behaviour.” How many of us, given the choice between a life of foraging for nuts and berries, stark naked in the rain, and living in a small, centrally heated flat with a fridge full of food, would choose the former?