Many students chow down on scrambled eggs and omelettes in the dining halls every day without thinking twice about where the food comes from.
But student members of the University of Georgia animal rights organization Speak Out for Species are an exception. The club, which comprises 30 active students, wants UGA Food Services to transition to using cage-free eggs because of animal cruelty concerns.
The students have collected 1,500 signatures at Tate Student Center Plaza for a petition supporting this cause.
The battery cage eggs that the dining halls use come from chickens raised in cages providing 67 to 86 square inches of room per bird, according to the recommendation of the United Egg Producers.
“On massive battery cage egg farms, hens are confined in small, filthy wire cages where they are unable to spread their wings, barely able to turn around, and live amongst the excrement of other birds,” said Namita Money, a member of Speak Out for Species.
The students have been trying to convince Food Services administrators to make the change since September 2014, Money said.
The group made several vain attempts to talk with the former Executive Director of Food Services Jeanne Fry, and they eventually met with Interim Executive Director of Food Services Bryan Varin, she said.
But Food Services administration refused to switch due to cost.
“After two meetings, we were told the same thing repeatedly - a commitment wasn’t possible,” Money said.
The students disputed the claim that cage-free eggs were too expensive, noting that other universities had found economic ways to use these eggs.
“UGA often seeks to position itself at the forefront of the movement to ‘go green,' but on the issue of battery cage eggs, one that affects not just sustainability but animal welfare and student health as well, UGA now lags dangerously behind its peers,” Money said.
Emory University, Emerson College and Boston University are among the universities that have switched to cage-free eggs. The McDonald's fast food chain also announced in September their commitment to phase out battery cage eggs over the next decade.
California has banned the sale of eggs from hens in cages that did not allow them to fully spread their wings since Jan. 1, 2015.
Money said that not only were battery cage facilities bad for chickens, but they could also affect the environment and human health negatively. She cited sixteen studies to show that eggs from chickens in battery cages were more likely to cause salmonella poisoning.
The Humane League, a national farm animal nonprofit organization that helped several schools to make the transition, would be willing to help UGA too, Money said.
The Atlanta Office Director Chris Guinn told Speak Out for Species the estimated cost increase provided by UGA’s Auxiliary Services department was much higher compared to other universities and offered to help cut that projected increase substantially, Money said.
But the switch to cage-free eggs is not on Food Service's agenda. Varin said the department’s focus is to keep meal plan prices as affordable as possible.
“Currently our shell egg price is $1.75 per dozen versus $2.59 per dozen for cage-free eggs,” Varin said. “A 48 percent increase between the cage-free egg and the egg that we’re using now is a substantial amount of money that would have to be passed on to the customer if we brought it in."
UGA would not absorb any increase in cost, Varin said.
“Being an auxiliary service, all of our funding comes from the sale of meal plans and the product we serve, so we don’t receive any outside funding whatsoever from UGA or the state of Georgia,” he said.
Varin said that Food Services had managed to keep the cost of meal plans stagnant for the past three years, which was challenging since food costs continued to rise every year.
The nationwide egg shortage also added to the challenges, Varin said. Eggs have been scarce due to the avian flu that has killed millions of chickens since the beginning of 2015.
“Currently we are focused on having eggs available in the house to serve, and we’re struggling to get any eggs on campus because of the current egg shortage,” Varin said.
Dr. Bruce Webster, a professor and extension coordinator in the Poultry Science Department of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, said he believes cage-free eggs would probably have more salmonella.
Webster said that was because chicken manure would fall below chickens and be collected regularly in a battery cage system, whereas chickens could roam in their manure outdoors in a free-range farm. This could make them more susceptible to parasites, predators and variations in the environment.
“The attempt to suggest that commercially-available eggs, at least by conventional systems, are somehow unsafe, it’s just an error,” Webster said.
Conventional battery cage farms were more sustainable in that they turned manure into fertilizer, Webster said.
On the other hand, rain could easily wash away manure in free-range farms, which offered more opportunities for the inadvertent loss of nutrients and pollution, he said.
“In reality, the cage-free housing tends to be less efficient, in my mind, more environmentally unfriendly,” Webster said.
He said the supply and demand for cage-free eggs is good, but running free-range farms is not an economically viable way to feed the masses.
Webster also said he would not call conventional housing cruel, since chickens could have good welfare if the system was well managed.
Webster said a study by the American Veterinary Medical Association showed that mortality rate and the level of egg production and cleanliness were much more satisfactory in a conventional cage setting, while chickens could exercise more behavioral freedom in free-range farms.
“It’s a trade-off really, in my view. It’s really hard to say one kind of housing system is entirely better than the other, just because each has its advantages and disadvantages. It’s really up to somebody to decide which ones are more important,” Webster said.
But the students intend to continue their efforts.
“We will continue to pressure UGA to boycott battery cage eggs until the university issues a commitment to 100 percent cage-free eggs on campus,” Money said.