Anthony Rust farms 21 million hens, which makes him an expert on the egg business. He’s done it his whole life, first as a 9-year-old picking eggs on the family farm, to today, as executive vice president of Rose Acre Farms, which is found on the Internet at the pastoral-sounding www.goodegg.com.

Except there’s nothing docile about Rust, not right now. He’s angry at how his industry is being portrayed in the wake of the Quality Egg of New England flap in Turner – a place he’s visited – and how perceptions of chicken treatment are being controlled by animal rights activists, not farmers.

He’s the one with 21 million hens. He should know what is best for them, right? “There’s a couple of hundred of us [farms] versus a lynch mob,” says Rust, in a dripping southern drawl. “What the animal rights groups say is not factual.”

The issue, to Rust, is pretty simple. Hens are animals with their own specific behavior patterns to be controlled for their best interest. The best way to do that in modern farming is through cages, which is not only better for mortality, but for the healthiness and cleanliness of eggs delivered to consumers.

In cages, says Rust, small groups of hens live peaceably (by establishing, of course, their individual pecking order). They lay eggs and their waste is easily disposed of, unlike hens in floor or free-range environments in which fecal matter is not so easily washed away.

Free-range is better described as a free-for-all. Hens in that environment can kill each other. The dead are eaten by the others. Skittish gangs of hens can swarm and smother unlucky birds at the bottom of the pile. Why this system is superior is a mystery to Rust because, for the birds, it’s more dangerous.

Hence his anger at the animal rights groups, which are selling hen freedom as the humane way. Rust says they’re dead wrong. Cages aren’t inhumane, they’re just in the best interest of the hen, the farmer and the consumer to ensure the regular supply of a quality product to the market. And that’s it.

All the rest might as well be henhouse gossip.

Now, we didn’t seek out Rust. He called us, after reading about Quality Egg of New England and the role an animal rights group, Mercy for Animals, played in exposing its practices. His arguments for cages are convincing, yet they do not excuse the outrageous behavior videotaped in Turner.

Rust has his own theories about that, which start and end with the farm’s notable management.

He is a man defending his industry. In doing so, he’s given food for thought. While mistreatment of animals is abhorrent, we expect fresh, reliable, sanitary eggs in supermarket cases. Farmers have developed methods of providing them that are consistent, efficient and somewhat clean, as we egg-eaters desire.

Do we have to like how they do it? No. But Rust is a reminder it wasn’t farmers alone who caused this problem.

It was consumers.


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