Thursday, July 14, 2011

Running Free

Dan and I are training for the Baltimore Marathon this October.  Marathon training involves a LOT of running.  There is a science behind it and some workouts should be shorter/faster/longer/hillier than others, but the gist is that you are running.  Today was a particularly beautiful summer morning for a run in Maryland - sunny, cool, and not humid - and I enjoyed every minute of my short three-miler.

When I finish a run, I like to eat something with a lot of protein to help rebuild muscles and aid in recovery.  Dan goes for a protein drink; he mixes water with a vegetarian protein powder (pea-potato-spirulina which tastes about as good as it sounds).  I typically enjoy a plate of scrambled eggs, by which I mean one egg and some egg whites mixed together.   I'm very careful about what type of eggs I buy, making sure the packaging says "Cage Free" and that the eggs are organic, meaning no antibiotics or hormones were used.  I thought that these labels meant the hens enjoyed a lovely life full of sunshine and space to roam.  According to a 2010 graphic published by the New York Times I was very wrong.

I'm including the graphic here, too.  Even though it's not to scale, I think it's really important to see.  The red dotted lines are how much hens raised in battery cages get (97% of laying hens) and how much space cage-free hens get (2% of laying hens).  Even the 1% of hens that are raised "free range" may not be as free to roam as it sounds.  They usually have limited hours of access to the outside world.

What Is Being Done?
Some recent good news is that the Humane Society of the United States and the United Egg Producers, representing 80% of laying hens, are pushing Congress to pass a bill which dictates how much space these hens should have.  The recommendation is 144 square inches per hen, more than twice as much as they currently get and even more than the cage-free birds!  This would actually be the first federal law related to the treatment of farm animals and could set a great precedent for future legislation.

What Can You Do?
Short of raising your own hens, which actually isn't a bad idea if you have some outdoor space and a little free time, this is a difficult question.  Some small, family-run farms will let you buy eggs directly.  This has an advantage in that you may be able to see how the hens are raised, or at least talk to someone knowledgeable of their treatment. Disadvantages include an extra trip outside of your normal grocery store run, and the fact that there aren't going to be small family-run farms within driving distance of everyone in the country.

Some larger farmer's markets sell eggs as well.  These farmers might come from slightly farther than you are willing to drive, so that is a good option to still get localish eggs and to be able to talk to the farmers about the living conditions of their hens.  The disadvantage with farmer's markets is that they typically do not run all year long.

For my part, I will continue to buy the "cage free" eggs I see in stores because that seems the most humane of the commercially available options.  I will investigate what is being sold at my local farmer's market.  I also plan to keep an eye on the legislation as it goes to Congress, although even if it passes it will take 18 years for the new rules to be fully phased in.  And of course, I will keep running.

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