Friday, September 28, 2007

"Selling out" with cage-free eggs?

Recently – and quietly – Princeton Dining Services started serving liquid cage-free eggs in the dining halls on Sundays.

This change came after years of pressure, first from Greening Princeton and then from PAWS. Last year, Dining Services switched to cage-free shell eggs, a huge victory for us. Dining Services proudly advertised that they “kindly” served cage-free eggs. Yet the majority of the eggs consumed on campus, in the form of liquid eggs, still came from hens cramped in battery cages so small that they can barely move. Because of price and packaging issues, they resisted switching fully to the cage-free eggs.

Out of the blue, Dining Services told us that they would begin introducing cage-free liquid eggs for Sunday brunch, and we have a verbal commitment that they are phasing out the battery cage eggs completely. When this finally happens, Princeton will be the first Ivy League school to switch to the exclusive use of cage-free eggs. Finally, Princeton is leading other Universities in its progressive practices.

I think Dining Services deserves to be praised for this action. But Peter Singer's and my oped in the Daily Princetonian which does just that received mixed reviews from PAWS members. Many of you think that (1) Dining Services has done squat for the vegetarians and vegans on campus, and we shouldn’t be praising them, and (2) we should not endorse cage-free eggs as a matter of principle.

Let me first address the concern that Dining Services is basically ignoring us. While it may seem like that, we are in productive, professional discussions with them. Just having them talk to us is a positive step, and we don’t want to do anything to hurt this relationship. Purchasing decisions take time and we can and will be patient. I am pleased with the progress we are making: The new Whitman dining hall is extremely vegetarian and vegan friendly (in fact, I wish I could eat there all the time.) Alex Barnard, the PAWS Vice-President, just met with Wilson/Butler dining hall director, and the director promised to try out new vegetarian entrees. We are still waiting on the soy yogurt and margarine, and we will continue to pressure Dining Services to adequately feed us. But there is no harm in praising the progress they have made, and their willingness to talk to us. And let me tell you, vegan Dining Hall food is far superior to vegan Terrace food, which is my next target.

The second critique of my oped is more complicated. I am very sympathetic to those of you who believe that PAWS should not singing the praises of cage-free eggs. “Cage-free hens” after all, do not have the best life in the world. They are still cramped, just in sheds not cages. They are often still debeaked, and the male chicks are still no use to the farmers, and often disposed of immediately after birth. This blog sums up the problems of cage-free nicely.

But I would argue that cage-free eggs are still better. Battery caged hens cannot do any of their natural behaviors. Living in a space smaller than a standard sheet of paper for their entire lives, they can't even spread their wings. The size of battery cages in the United States is so small that they would be illegal in Europe. I strongly believe that an average bird would much prefer to be laying eggs in a shed where she can walk around rather than a wire cage she will never leave. (Then again, what do I know? I’d like to organize a trip to a cage-free farm, and battery cage farm if they would let us in, which they wouldn’t.)

But that begs the question – why should we accept or promote either of those options? There is a third option, veganism, that would make both of those unfortunate choices unnecessary . As Gary Francione would argue, cage-free eggs simply reinforce the property status of animals. True animal rights advocates, he would say, cannot endorse any reform that maintains that animals can be used as means to our ends.

This is a very appealing position for me. I am a happy vegan (except when there is no vegan food in Terrace…) and I agree with Francione that promoting veganism is the one of the most effective ways to bring about animal rights. However, I’m not going to spend all my energy trying to get people to go vegan who never will when I can use that energy to improve the lives of animals now. After years of talking to people about vegetarianism and veganism, I’ve come to the unfortunate conclusion that there are many, many people who will just never go vegetarian. I strongly believe that will change in future generations, but for now, the world is not going vegan overnight, and I’ve accepted that.

Fighting for cage-free eggs is not perfect, but it is a reform that does make a difference. Not only does it make a difference for those hens, it let’s Dining Services know that Princeton students care about the humane treatment of animals. Talking about cage-free eggs opens up other discussions about animal treatment and dining services purchases. And the switch to cage-free eggs—part of a highly successful campaign led by the Humane Society of the United States—has generated tons of publicity and heightened awareness on the treatment of hens, and factory farmed animals in general.

That said, PAWS members certainly don’t have to agree with me that cage-free reform is the way to go. The PAWS constitution states that its members do not agree on any particular ideological framework; we just agree that the current state of animal exploitation is morally unacceptable and we have an obligation to do what we can to change it. If that means not supporting cage-free eggs, feel free to write a letter to the editor explaining why you are a PAWS member yet do not support cage-free eggs. If there’s one thing I like, it’s discussing these issues. Maybe you’ll even convince me that my op-ed was out of line.

I very much appreciate the comments I’ve received on my oped, no matter how much they derided me for selling out. I believe that working within the system, bringing about substantial reform, and establishing professional relationships with people who buy meat and eggs does not mean I’ve “sold out,” just that I have made the pragmatic choice to work within the system and not outside of it.


  1. If we're not willing to compromise we will get nowhere.

  2. As a longtime vegan, I’ve also resigned myself to acceptance that incremental steps are needed. I agree that even getting Dining Services to think about these sorts of issues increases public awareness and is therefore a step in the right direction. I doubt that anyone that became aware of and concerned for animal rights as a result of this decision would reach the conclusion that cage-free is good enough and no further work is necessary.