09/10/2010 01:43 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Chicken and the Egg and the Dalai Lama

I slide up the door to the coop and the chickens come barreling out, clucking and twittering like Sarah Palin in pursuit of a lecture fee. Only my chickens, a mix of birds raised for meat, eggs and pure, silly enjoyment, aren't angry. They aren't taking aim at the establishment, reloading rather than retreating. Perhaps though, they should be, given the fate suffered by most of their relatives in the United States.

My two dozen chickens are indulged with free movement about a spacious coop and a modest outdoor run. A farmer or the owner of an egg factory would no doubt point out that I don't have to worry about the cost point of each egg I collect. But neither do I have to worry about Salmonella enteritidis -- unlike the Iowa egg factories that have been a focus of the news lately.

In fact, the recent discovery of disease-bearing eggs should have come as no surprise. A recent article from the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research & Policy (CIDRAP) points out that the violations uncovered at the Hillandale Farms and Wright County Egg's facilities (violations which caused the recall of more than half a billion eggs) aren't anomalies. Rather, these conditions are inherent in that style of egg production.

Supplying the million-plus pounds of feed required daily by the two plants' combined population of seven million hens inevitably involves a good deal of spillage, which in turn attracts large populations of pathogen-bearing rodents and wild birds.

The manure deposited each day by the hens of such a factory is immense: 1,000,000 birds produce 250,000 lbs. of manure daily. This creates insuperable sanitation problems in such a claustrophobic setting. Removing such a weight of material requires bringing tractors into the factory buildings or running conveyor belts out through walls, and either solution creates openings that serve as entryways for vermin. Besides, no system will remove all the manure from the buildings. If nothing else, a certain amount adheres to the wire floors of the chickens cages. Manure is an ideal breeding ground for flies, which in turn serve as vectors to spread microorganisms wherever they land. In a more natural setting, chickens continually scratch with their feet, turning up the bedding in their coops and the soil in their runs and so bury and dispose of manure themselves. In the factory cages, they haven't got sufficient room to move their feet in this manner. Indeed, they haven't even got enough room to lie down. It's worth noting that this condition, confinement in a space too small to allow sitting or lying down, is one of the techniques that the CIA has used to break suspected al Quaeda terrorists.

Our current style of industrial egg production is always going to pose threats to public health. The Food and Drug Administration estimates that 142,000 Americans are infected with salmonella every year by tainted eggs, and that on average 30 of the infected individuals die. As pointed out in the New York Times of August 24th, our egg producers could vaccinate their chickens to protect us from this particular bacterium. Some producers have already adopted this precaution, though many have resisted because the vaccinations raise the cost of production by approximately a penny per twenty eggs. Even if vaccination becomes universal, however, it will be nothing more than a band aid. It doesn't address the fundamental problem, which is that confining so many animals in conditions that makes them chronically sick creates a perfect nursery for pathogens, including avian flu viruses.

Of equal concern should be the egg farms effect on our mental and spiritual health. That, at any rate, is the view of the Dalai Lama, who recently spoke out on the subject of battery egg farms, calling their deliberate, methodical cruelty "a degradation of our own humanity".

I am not sentimental about chickens -- in a couple of weeks I will be butchering the handful I have raised for meat. I cannot imagine, though, maintaining an avian Abu Graib in which I make a routine of torture. Food nurtured in such a fashion can never be healthy.

I don't propose that everyone raise their own eggs, breasts and drumsticks. At the least, though, we should all care enough about our own health, physical and spiritual, to pay the modest premium that a more humane egg industry would demand. A plate of eggs sunnyside-up shouldn't derive from such dark practices.