It's rough being a conscientious consumer. One minute, everyone's telling you that quinoa is the answer to any given factor causing misery in your life—back fat, acne, eternal loneliness—and the next, you find out that the newly fostered Western obsession with the pseudocereal is ruining the lives of poor Bolivians and Peruvians. Or maybe you feel good about swapping out real sausage in favor of the veggie kind, until you find out that they're a highly processed loaf of chemicals bolstered with loads of sodium. But at least you have the basics: grass-fed beef; cage-free, vegetarian-fed chicken eggs. Right? Right?
As a new article in The Washington Post argues, the fact that your chickens ate a vegetarian diet might make you feel better at a label's glance; it's easy to juxtapose the idea with a horrifying mental picture of factory-farmed chickens eating from a trough of gruel made from their pulverized brothers, sisters, and babies. But while organic egg companies are quick to lay claim to the perhaps-healthier, maybe-more-ethical meat-free diet of their flock, the chickens aren't as enthused.
Chickens, as it happens, are naturally omnivorous, delighted to pull little worms and insects out of the ground and chomp them down, as you may remember from the popular animated trope of the stubborn worm harking back to your cartoon-watching days. Like many other birds, chickens quite like meat. And on top of that, they can actually become ill without it.
Nutritionally, chickens need an essential amino acid called methionine, which humans derive from foods such as nuts, seeds, fish, meats, and—you guessed it—eggs. Under the US Organic program, methionine is a permitted supplement in poultry farming. But not all farms include it in their vegetarian feed—and when they do, it's typically a synthetic version that can only be distributed to the birds at low, insufficient levels due to organic policy and regulation—and farmers tell the Post that the soy- and corn-fed birds become violent and frenetic without it, pecking at each other in their hunt for the nutrient. Pasture-raised chickens are able to hunt for bugs in the ground, but barn-raised chickens don't have that luxury.
And the industry is only growing: In 2008, nearly a billion organic eggs were produced in the US. The problem has become so serious that on Tuesday, farmers testified in front of federal officials, urging new policies in regards to chicken feed.
Ernie Peterson of Wisconsin-based Cashton Farm Supply tells the Post, "It's not right that we are forcing this diet on them … We have people who are supposed to worry about animal welfare. Where are they? This is cruelty." Another farmer—Will Harris of Bluffton, Georgia's White Oak Pastures—likened it to zoo-goers "saying they only want to see the vegetarian tiger."
For farmers who are able to provide pastures where the chickens can scratch and nibble to their hearts' content, the methionine problem isn't such a worry. But for the many farmers living in areas where the birds can't be outside in the winter—or where there isn't space to accommodate the birds outside—"vegetarian-fed" isn't all it's cracked up to be for the birds, despite consumer beliefs. (The vegan cat debate comes to mind.)
If the early birds don't get the worm, we may not be getting the eggs from healthy birds at all.