When I said goodbye to my little flock and had to resort to getting my eggs cold from the supermarket cooler instead of warm from the nest, I made sure to choose cartons that said that the hens who laid those eggs were “free-range” or, at the very least, “cage-free.”
Temple Grandin, that patron saint of farm animals, writes that battery hens are the most mistreated of all livestock. The suffering of cattle in feedlots is nothing compared to the misery of hens imprisoned in tight individual cages, deprived of natural light and food, forced to lay without regard for seasonal rhythms, and slaughtered after a couple of years.
There was a time in my life when I made mayonnaise from scratch, in the blender, with garlic and olive oil, and eggs from my own lovelies. But when I was reduced to buying it at the store, I forgot to think about the hens whose eggs were used in its manufacture. Then one day, reading labels, I found mayonnaise made with eggs from cage-free hens, from the biggest producer on the planet, Hellmann’s.
Not that cage-free hens lead an idyllic life. They don’t run around on grass, peck at bugs, or preen their feathers in the sun. They spend their lives in huge rooms filled with hundreds of their peers, making the most horrific din. Still, it’s far better than those cages.
I bought the jar of Hellmann’s and took it home. It tasted like ordinary mayo, but I felt better as I spread it on my bread. Then, on my next trip to the store, I saw a new product on the shelf, a mayonnaise dressing from the same manufacturer that, the label said, was made with olive oil.
I am a devotee of olive oil. As a child, one of my favorite foods was “pa amb oli i xocolata,” the all-time Catalan after-school snack: a thick slice of crusty bread sprinkled with dark, aromatic olive oil, accompanied with a chunk of almost-bitter chocolate. (If you’ve never tried it, it beats Hershey’s by a mile.)
When the AMA discovered the benefits of the Mediterranean diet, olive oil ranked first on its list of panaceas. A powerful antioxidant, the oil is supposed to be good for the heart, the brain, the gut, and the immune system. It fights infection, lessens the risk of strokes and certain cancers, combats pain and inflammation, helps prevent diabetes and, because it keeps blood sugar levels stable, may help you lose weight. Not surprisingly, it’s even good for your mood.
I was in the kitchen putting away the olive oil mayo when I realized that I hadn’t checked whether its eggs also came from cage-free hens. What if I had bought mayonnaise that was good for me but bad for the hens?
The days are long gone when one could go to the store and choose stuff based on whether it looked good and how much it cost. I had barely mastered the secrets of tuna casserole when I learned that most of the foods available in the supermarket were bursting with possibly lethal substances. The first culprit, identified in the 1970s, was salt (would give you heart attacks), followed in the 1980s by fat (ditto, plus you would look awful), followed by sugar (pure poison, and ubiquitous), followed by hormones (would give you breasts if you were a man, cancer if you were a woman), pesticides, and the growing awareness of what our food system was doing to the welfare of animals.
Trips to the supermarket became exercises in defensive warfare against industrial farming, food conglomerates, and big business, all of whom were bent on doing me maximum harm for their maximum profit. And now here I was in the kitchen, holding my jar of Hellmann’s, about to face a moral choice between the welfare of millions of hens and my own.
But like Abraham about to sacrifice his son at God’s command, I was spared the dreadful choice. A close look at the label informed me that all Hellmann’s mayonnaises are made exclusively with, as they put it, “cage-free eggs.”
After a year when good news has been scarcer than, well, hen’s teeth, I clutched the Hellmann’s jar to my breast. Could it really be that one of America’s major food producers had both my welfare and that of the female chicken at heart? Alternatively, could it be that consumer pressure had inspired Hellmann’s move to use olive oil, and eggs from cage-free birds?
Whatever the reason—and I suspect it’s #2—it gives me hope. Maybe the next target for us consumers could be the bull calves that are born each year to keep their mothers lactating. Heaven knows I sympathize with the plight of dairy farmers, but the sight every spring of farms with dozens of calves in rows of individual “calf igloos” may well drive me to veganism. In a nation that sends robots to Mars, surely there is a way we can have our cheese and eat it, with a clear conscience.