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The eggs are finally consumed by the students. They are fried, hard boiled or used for omelets in the morning. – Photo by Shawn Smith

How free are Rutgers' cage-free eggs?

It took two years, but Rutgers students have gotten the University to switch to cage-free eggs. Beginning this semester, all students with a meal plan will notice a small increase to the cost, as the eggs are more costly then years past.

The change was approved this past summer at a Board of Governors meeting, after members of Rutgers United for the Welfare of Animals were able to prove students wanted the change in the dining halls.

Despite the fact that boxes coming to the University now have “cage-free” stamped on them, there was still concern about how cage-free the animals at the farms were. After a trip to the farm and distribution facility of the new eggs, The Daily Targum learned that they are in fact, cage-free.

University students push for cage-free eggs, win

Anyone who has visited the dining halls this semester may have noticed something has changed with the products the University uses. The eggs are now brown and they now come from a cage-free facility.

Joseph Charette, executive director of Dining Services, said the fight for cage-free eggs began over two years ago. Members of Rutgers United for the Welfare of Animals approached him in the winter of 2010 and began regular meetings to discuss how to get the University to switch over.

Constance Li, a Rutgers alumna, was one of the people to talk to Charette about switching over to cage-free eggs.

After looking at the numbers, Charette said he told RUWA they would have to get proof the student body would back a change from the traditional caged eggs, to cage-free. The change meant an increase in dining plans, and the Board of Governors had already tried to keep tuition rates flat for the following year.

“In 2012, there was a $225,000 difference in cost to not be cruel to animals,” he said. “Meal plans would be millions [of dollars] more if big changes were made to just a few items on the menu.”

Li said her hope was by switching to cage-free eggs, Rutgers could change the lives for thousands of chickens.

“It’s very rare that we can tackle an issue within our community that affects almost 10,000 lives, and relieves them from the worst kind of suffering,” she said.

In their first attempt to gain support, Charette said RUWA went to the streets and asked for signatures to their petition.

It was put on the student government referendum and was a ballot question for the cage-free eggs, to the entire population of Rutgers, Li said. It did not pass, because it was not asking specifically if meal plan holders would be willing to spend more for the eggs, it was to the general population.

The organization was then told they needed to make sure they were asking in the right spots, Charette said.

“I told them they needed to hear from all students with meals plans,” he said. “They should be asking in the dining halls where people are swiping in.”

The following year there was an improved referendum to just people with meal plans, Li said.

Inside the dining halls, Li said information about the conditions of the chickens was given to students and they were asked to vote. Students were asked to provide information, including their name, RUID, which dining hall they frequented the most, and if they would like to see a switch to cage-free eggs. They were also asked how much they would be willing to spend to go cage-free.

“They had to give their RUID so we could cross check they had meal plans,” Li said.

After the surveys were completed, Charette said members of RUWA went to the Rutgers University Student Assembly to come up with a plan to approach the Board with. After confirmation of the survey results by RUSA, they were ready.

The results from the final surveys were surprising, Charette said. A majority of students were willing to pay 20 cents or higher for the switch to cage-free eggs. With a 210-meal plan for both semesters, that came out to $84 more a year.

RUWA worked with RUSA to come up with a budget for the various meal plans, Li said.

“It would cost about six cents more a meal, and we told people this,” she said. “The average vote was around 15 cents more per meal.”

At the meeting, they presented the data to the Board, Charette said. They showed that the majority of the student body with meal plans was willing to pay for this philosophy.

While the survey results showed how much students were willing to pay, the final cost was much lower Charette said. For students with a 50 or 75 meal plan, they saw a $10 per year increase. Those with a 110 or higher meal plan saw a $15 increase.

The cage-free eggs would change the dynamic of all the eggs used by the University, Charette said. It did not affect shelled eggs, but the liquid eggs we receive as well.

Even after graduating from the University, Li attended Board meetings to ensure her fight would be victorious.

“It was passed over the summer, in July,” she said. “I was thrilled when it [passed]. It really goes to show people are starting to care about the welfare of animals.”

People do not think it’s worth it to save 15 cents when they realize what it buys, and the life it would provide for the chicken that gave them that egg, Li said.

With the help of about 12 peers, she said RUWA was able to work with the Board, as well as Dining Services, to bring this change to Rutgers.

Going to the egg farm in Pa.

About four hours from Rutgers, around the center of Pennsylvania, lies the town of Loganton, also known as Sugar Valley. Among the olive, jasmine and scarlet shaded trees of the rolling hills, the landscape is dotted with small, family-run farms, one-room schoolhouses and churches.

As the sun rises in the morning, the lush autumn hills along the town begin to glow amber, as if an oil painting were beginning to come to life.

For Henry Esh and his family, the morning sunrise means its time to begin collecting eggs for the day in his long red farmhouse. Outside a diesel generator has already begun producing the only power on the farm. An air compressor, powered by the generator, runs a conveyer belt that stretches to both ends of the building.

Esh and his family are Amish. They believe in hard work and simple living, and this is apparent when entering his farm. His young children have an incredible work ethic, as they amble into the farm and turn on the belt to start sorting eggs.

All of the chickens on Esh’s farm are a breed of chicken that brown eggs.

Esh said he doesn’t know much about white eggs as he has lived with cage-free brown eggs his whole life.

“I’m not acquainted with the white eggs,” he said. “I never preferred the white eggs because I never knew anything about them. I never had experience with white birds, growing up we always had our own chickens and they were brown.”

White cage-free eggs are available, said Lester Martin, owner of Martin’s Quality Eggs. They would come from a cage-free white chicken. The brown chickens just do a lot better in the cage-free setting.

When people think about chickens in a cage-free setting, the misconception is that the chickens are free range, Martin said. For Esh, this is not the case, because of local predators in the area.

“If they were to roam about outside, soon you wouldn’t have chickens,” he said. “Here, a thousand feet away from the farm, a fox or hawk can drag away a chicken and have themselves breakfast or whatever.”

Inside the farmhouse, there are over 9,000 chickens, Esh said. They produce, on average, about 7,700 eggs daily and he has about 85 percent of chickens producing eggs.

When chickens are happy, they will produce eggs on a daily basis, Charette said.

The farm Esh owns is one of many in the area that sell their eggs to Martin, he said.

Throughout the farm, Esh said there were nesting boxes. The chickens go into these boxes and lay their eggs, which roll down on sloped sponge mats to the conveyer belt.

“We mostly gather eggs about three times a day,” Esh said.

Inside the farmhouse, the chickens can be seen through two windows next to the conveyer belt. Looking down through the farm, the chickens are free to jump onto a central platform, drink from a water tube that stretches the length of the barn and mill about on the ground.

This process allows the farmers to gather the eggs much more easily, Martin said, instead of chasing the chickens around. When they awake for the day, the chickens know exactly where to go to lay their eggs.

As far as the feed is concerned, Martin said the chickens are fed a mixed vegetable and grain diet, with no Genetically Modified Organisms added.

After the eggs are collected, they are kept in a refrigerator at around 45 degrees until a truck from Martin’s comes to pickup the shipment, Martin said. The farms adhere to all state and federal guidelines when it comes to the safety and security of the livestock.

“What they are doing is they are superseding regulations,” Martin said. “They care about the birds like family, this is their livelihood. A lot of independent farms have outside workers coming in, which isn’t bad, but they may not care as much. [Esh] takes the extra care because this is their life.”

Esh, unaware of the population at Rutgers, asked how many hundreds of people his eggs serve. He was shocked to discover the number was actually in the thousands.

The egg-credible journey

Every year, billions of eggs pass through Martin’s sorting facility outside Lancaster, set in the small town of Lititz, Penn. The factory is a midway point for the eggs, between the farm and Rutgers. This is where they will be cleaned, sorted, and shipped out.

Martin said his facility is also family run, as he employs close family members like his uncles and nieces, as well as some outside help from the local Amish community.

Because everything in Martin’s factory is automated — from receiving the eggs from the farms, to shipping them out to different vendors — he said no eggs ever pass through human hands. This eliminates a lot of chances for contamination.

While a portion of his product is cage-free, Martin said he also sells caged eggs as well, because a majority of vendors still buy those from him.

“We do have some non cage-free chickens,” he said. “If we dealt with strictly cage-free product, we’d probably go out of business because there’s still a vast majority of people who want a commodity product. However, we take the caged chickens to a different level than other people do.”

The caged chickens are given more space, he said. The chickens are caged, but they are not as confined as they may be in other places.

After the family farmers pack the eggs, they are sent to Martin’s, he said. There, machines will wash the eggs, look for bloods and cracked shells in the eggs, and sort the sizes.

“We package them to go the local supermarket, or to the University,” he said. “They go to [Joe Vrola]. They are a main distributor who serves you and Princeton.”

The eggs are shipped to Vrola, Martin said, so the University and other vendors do not have one truck coming from each product, instead having one truck coming with various products.

While Martin also produces liquid eggs, they are processed at his other facility in upstate New York.

Martin said he produces different grades of eggs as well, both Grade A and Grade AA.

“A Grade A egg is an egg that would work good in diners or bakeries. A Grade [AA] is more of a higher quality egg, and works better in a restaurant,” Martin said. “When you strike a Grade A egg out, the white will let the yolk go down against the grill. If you have a Grade [AA], that white holds it and holds the yolk up.”

The Grade AA is a little more expensive, Martin said, but they are a little better quality.

Martin said his father and grandfather started his plant in 1965, and as the business grew and the family grew, more members began to work for the facility.

“We enjoy it,” he said. “There’s a lot of competition out there and we try to get a good, quality product out. We just try to stay above the competition on the street.”

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated egg color is based the color of the chickens.

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