September 18, 2013

Put A Camera On An Eagle And What Do You Get? Soaring VIDEO

If this is a trick, it's a spectacular one.

A video that purports to have been taken by a GoPro or similarly small camera strapped to an eagle soaring above Chamonix, France, is quickly going viral.

As France's version of The Local newssite says, "for now, the author of the video remains unknown, but until then we can only watch and admire.

We hope this is more along the lines of the very real "Decorah Eagle Cam" and not the very fake "Eagle Snatches Kid." Experts' opinions are welcome in the comments thread.

Before we leave, we do need to mention Fly Like An Eagle — just to be sure it's running through everyone's brains.


Chipotle Mexican Grill launched The Scarecrow, an arcade-style adventure game for iPhone, iPad and iPod touch.
(Business Wire)
September 13, 2013

Taking Down Big Food Is The Name Of Chipotle's New Game

Chipotle Mexican Grill prides itself on the fact that it serves only "responsibly raised beef, pork and chicken."

That means the meat it buys comes from animals raised outside or in comfy pens, who are never given antibiotics and are fed an additive-free, vegetarian diet.

Sourcing that meat is getting harder as the chain has expanded to more than 1,500 stores. But the strategy of marketing itself as a fast food alternative to Big Food has clearly worked well for Chipotle.

Now Chipotle is betting that it can sell even more burritos by lambasting the Big Food companies that drug animals in the name of profit. That's the message of a new short film and game the company launched Thursday that takes a cue from advocacy films like The Meatrix.

As the short film, The Scarecrow, opens, we see a spindly scarecrow entering the monolithic factory of "Crow Foods Incorporated," where conveyor belts ferry boxes of "100% Beef-ish" and eggs and chicken dubiously labeled "all-natural." Through the cracks of a factory wall, the scarecrow spies chickens being injected with growth promoters. Inside a sky-scraping tower, he finds cows trapped in boxes staring blankly as they're pumped with something.

The soundtrack for this dystopian scene is Fiona Apple crooning the song "Pure Imagination" from the 1971 film classic Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.



The dejected scarecrow rides home on the subway, and sees an ad and then a billboard for "farm fresh" Crow Foods "feeding the world" as pernicious robotic crows flutter around.

But this scarecrow is a proactive fellow. Rather than eating this shameful food, he goes out to the garden and picks a bright red pepper (subtle, Chipotle). We see him cooking in his small kitchen, and then presto! Our sad little scarecrow has become a happy little street food vendor, selling fresh tacos out of red plastic baskets that look quite a lot like what you'll get at the Mexican chain.

Chipotle's gleaming, super-efficient stores and revenue of over $800 million are more Big Food than taco stand. (McDonalds was even an investor for a spell.) But the chain seems to want to show solidarity with the emerging class of entrepreneurial artisans making food from scratch. We're the good guys, fighting the bad guys, it whispers.

The film, created in partnership with Academy Award-winning Moonbot Studios, is meant "to help people better understand the difference between processed food and the real thing," says Mark Crumpacker, chief marketing officer at Chipotle, in a statement.

It's also a teaser for the game, which is available for free on iPhone and iPad, and is all about taking down Crow Foods. According to Chipotle, the game encourages players to "tilt and tap your way through four unique worlds to protect vulnerable veggies, rescue caged animals, and bring fresh food to the citizens of Plenty, all while dodging the menacing Crowbots." Players who earn enough "stars" get a buy-one, get-one-free offer redeemable at Chipotle store.

The game is, of course, fictional, and doesn't name any of the livestock producers that cage animals and pump them with growth promoters and antibiotics in real life. But the aspiration is clear: Chipotle and its customers are coming for you, Big Food.

Piglets in a pen on a hog farm
(Jeff Roberson/AP)
August 30, 2013

Antibiotic Use On The Farm: Are We Flying Blind?

There's a heated debate over the use of antibiotics in farm animals. Critics say farmers overuse these drugs; farmers say they don't.

It's hard to resolve the argument, in part because no one knows exactly how farmers use antibiotics. There's no reliable data on how much antibiotic use is intended to make animals grow faster, for instance, compared to treating disease. Many public health experts say the government should collect and publish that information because antibiotic-resistant bacteria are an increasingly urgent problem. But many farm groups are opposed.

James Johnson, a professor of medicine and infectious disease at the University of Minnesota, is among those pushing for better data. He faces the problem of drug-resistant bacteria firsthand. When he prescribes antibiotics to patients, he increasingly has to ask himself, "Will this drug even work?"

"Resistance is turning up everywhere, and increasingly involves our first-line, favorite drugs," he says. "Everyone knows that we're in a real crisis situation."

There's no easy way out of the crisis because antibiotics are so valuable. Everybody wants to use them. Yet the more they're used, the more likely it is that bacteria will become resistant to them.

Johnson preaches restraint, using the drugs only when they're clearly necessary. He also says that we need to know much more about how antibiotics are currently being used. "Otherwise, we're sort of flying blind," he says.

"Are we flying blind right now? Or do we have the information we need?" I ask.

"Not at all. I think we're mostly flying blind, at least in the U.S.," Johnson says.

There's no comprehensive source of data on how doctors prescribe antibiotics to people, and there's even less information about drugs that are given to chickens, turkeys, hogs and cattle.

That's a big blind spot because antibiotics are commonly used on the farm to treat disease, to prevent disease and to help animals grow faster.

This stream of antibiotics does create drug-resistant bacteria. And people can be exposed to those bacteria through a variety of pathways.

It's set off a fierce debate over how much this contributes to the overall problem of drug-resistant infections. Morgan Scott, a researcher in the College of Veterinary Medicine at Kansas State University, is trying to arrive at an answer. "As a researcher, it's a very intriguing area," he says. "But it's also frustrating because the data are really not there."

The only solid numbers on antibiotic use on the farm come from the Food and Drug Administration. Every year, the FDA lists the total quantity of antibiotics sold for use in farm animals, divided up by major drug class.

But Scott says those overall totals don't tell him what he'd like to know. "At the moment, we really can't identify whether certain uses of antibiotics are more or less risky than others," he says.

He'd love to know the patterns of antibiotic use — which drugs are used on each kind of animal, for what purpose, nationwide. If scientists tracked this over many years, they might be able to see which patterns of use create more drug-resistant bacteria.

There is a country that does collect this information. Denmark has led the world in efforts to control antibiotic use and antibiotic resistance. Every year it publishes a big volume of numbers — and Scott can't get enough of them. "Diving into these data, and visiting Denmark, is kind of like Disneyland for those of us who like big data," he says.

There are lots of people who want something similar for farms in the United States. They include public health experts, but also activist groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists. Congress is considering a bill that would force the FDA to collect this data and publish it.

But pharmaceutical companies and agricultural groups don't like that idea. They don't believe antibiotic use in animals is causing much of a problem for human health. They also don't think that detailed national statistics would even be useful.

"The amount of antibiotic used does not correlate to the potential public health threat," says Ron Phillips, a spokesman for the Animal Health Institute, which represents companies that sell veterinary drugs.

According to Phillips, if you really want to figure out which agricultural practices produce drug-resistant bacteria, you should study them up-close. Look at a few individual farms, examining what drugs are used and how bacteria adapt.

But don't create a national data collection system, he says. It would be a waste of money, and the numbers would just be misused by advocacy groups that are campaigning to restrict the use of antibiotics by farmers. "The widespread quotes that you see about how much is used in animal medicine, as opposed to human medicine — those are meant to scare people, not to inform people," he says.

One the other hand, Scott thinks better numbers could actually mean less suspicion and fear. Many people want to know exactly what meat producers are doing, he says. When they can't find the information they want, they're inclined to assume the worst.


Arvin Pierce, 61, removes a bee colony.
(Peter Gray/IPR)
August 26, 2013

Honeybee Health In Illinois: A Tale Of Two Apiaries

The stakes are high for honeybees. A survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows apiaries continue to lose nearly one third of hives each year.

That has led some environmental activists to push for further restrictions on a pesticide used to treat seed corn. Two central Illinois beekeepers are seeing very different results as they work to keep bees healthy in the Midwest Corn Belt.

Arvin Pierce, 61, has been preventing calls to the exterminator for seven years.  Each colony removal is a discovery.

“You’ll get these open and it’s kind of like a present,” Pierce said. “You know, ‘cause you open it up and it’s a little surprise.”


Pierce stands in a dark, cave-like basement of a cabin at a hunting club near Chandlerville.  The owner of the hunting club, who is severely allergic to bees, called Pierce to remove the buzzing colony under his floor.

Work to remove the colony, Pierce does not wear any gloves. Instead, he has duct tape wrapped around the cuffs of his shirt. He climbs a metal scaffold and begins prying open the ceiling.

“I started doing these cutouts – and taking survivor bees out of trees and houses and barns – and my bees are doing really well,” he explained. “ It’s certainly not anything I’m doing.  I don’t have any special secret or talent.”

Pierce calls these colonies especially valuable. He believes natural selection makes these bees - thriving in the wild - stronger than those treated with chemicals to ward off pests and infection.

“I don't like chemicals,” Pierce said. “I grew up on a little black dirt farm and it is just the principle I have that the less chemicals you use, the better off you are.”

Pierce lives in the rural community of Lowder, in south Sangamon County, but he has 58 hives scattered across central Illinois - in backyards, orchards - even the rooftop of a restaurant in downtown Springfield.

While beekeepers around the nation report losses of bees around 30 percent, Pierce's winter loss rate is closer to three percent.

Rick Nuss of Rantoul, who is another central Illinois beekeeper and also collects swarms of live bees, has not been that lucky.

"As a beekeeper, bees are like a member of your family. And when you go out there and you find them dead, it’s very disheartening," he said.

In May, Nuss filed a complaint with the EPA and the Illinois Dept. of Agriculture, claiming a farmer planting pesticide-treated seed corn triggered a massive die-off in his backyard.

“I went out after he got done planting and looked, and there were piles of dead bees out in front of my hives,” he added. “The next morning when I went out and looked it was like a carpet of bees.”

Nuss said he will be lucky if he can produced a tenth of the honey he did last year. His local beekeeping association alerted him of the suspected danger of pesticides used to treated corn known as neonicotinoids.

“It's one of the worst chemicals I've ever seen for killing things. I mean it's instant,” Nuss said.

So how dangerous are neonicotinoids? 

If the following records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act are any indication, not enough to warrant much reporting to government regulators.

Ill. Dept. of Agriculture Pesticide Misuse Complaints:

• 2010 (unavailable, read why)
2013 (through May)

Only Rick Nuss and one other Illinois beekeeper have filed incident reports in the past four years. That is two beekeepers in a state with 2,000 registered apiaries.

"Screaming about it to the media and reporting it to the EPA, who can actually do something about it are two very, very different things," said Randy Oliver, a veteran beekeeper, biologist and contributor to the American Bee Journal.

Oliver said petitions circulating on the internet and alarmist news reports linking neonicotinoids with dying bee colonies will not help his fellow environmentalists. he said instead of grabbing headlines, beekeepers concerned about chemicals should get in touch with regulators:

"If it's not reported onto paper somewhere, it does not exist, as far as the regulatory system is involved,” Oliver said. “So beekeepers have only themselves to blame about this."

Nuss defends Illinois beekeepers, saying they simply have not had enough information.

“They're not reporting because they don't know what's going on,” he said. “ Now that we're aware of it, in our Association, next year when it happens they're going to get all kinds of reports.”

While the debate over honeybee health continues, Pierce presses on with his colony removals.  He started preventing calls to the exterminator for a very personal reason.

"I really like them and I really don't like the idea of them being killed,” Pierce said. “They are really beneficial, they're helpful to all of us and… I think I like the challenge of it too.”

Pierce said just because his bees are thriving while others are dying doesn’t mean he has any answers. If anything, he only has more questions.

But Pierce said the unknown - and the unexpected - are just part of the job.

“If you like flying by the seat of your pants, you will make a good beekeeper,” he said. “Because you never know what you gonna find when you open a hive.”


August 06, 2013

U Of I Canine Cancer Drug To Be Tried On People

An anti-cancer drug for dogs is being tested at the University of Illinois and it's showing some promise.

Chemistry Professor Paul Hergenrother developed the drug compound known as PAC-1 in 2005 and has been testing it since then. He told The News-Gazette in Champaign that the drug has helped many of the dogs involved in the research.

Now the professor is getting ready to find out if the drug works on humans.

The drug essentially causes cancer cells to self-destruct.

Phil Meyer of Springfield believes his golden retriever, Blaze, likely lived with cancer a year or year and a half longer than she otherwise would have because of the drug.

Human trials will be conducted on patients with brain cancer.

Three chickens foraging in grass.
(Lisa Bralts/WILL)
August 03, 2013

Champaign Writing Rules To Own Backyard Chickens

City leaders in Champaign are working on an ordinance that will allow residents to keep chickens in their backyards.

Champaign city planner Lacey Rains Lowe says representatives from city departments like police, planning, legal and neighborhood services are working through the legislation. The Champaign City Council voted in July to end a ban on keeping chickens. They ordered city staff to draw up regulations.

The News-Gazette reports that city workers are considering how many hens residents can keep, whether permits and registration will be needed and how chicken coop designs will work with zoning codes. The city plan to prohibit roosters.

Craig Rowles tends to his pigs in a barn near Carroll, Iowa.
(Dan Charles/NPR)
July 11, 2013

Are Antibiotics On The Farm Risky Business?

You've probably seen the labels on meat in the store: "Raised without antibiotics." They're a selling point for people who don't like how many drugs are used on chickens, turkey, hogs and beef cattle.

Activist groups, as well as prominent medical organizations, are calling for stricter rules on how these drugs are used. At the moment, there are few restrictions on agricultural use; farmers can buy most antibiotics for the animals over the counter.

There's a passionate but often confusing debate about this. Here at The Salt, we've decided to spend some time digging into this issue to provide more clarity. (To be honest, we needed a little clarity ourselves.)

Today, we're starting with one very narrow question: What exactly is the danger of antibiotic use on the farm? Also, why do scientists disagree about how big that danger might be?

Let's start on the farm: Craig Rowles' hog operation, in Carroll, Iowa.

He takes me into a large room, the nursery, filled with 1,000 little pigs. They're a month old, just weaned from their mothers a week earlier. This is when they're most likely to get sick. And Rowles tells me that some are sick with the flu.

He won't try to treat the flu directly, but he does try to keep it from leading to more deadly bacterial infections. So he's giving all the pigs in this barn two different antibiotics in their drinking water: tetracycline, which is an older antibiotic; and tylvalosin, a newer drug, part of the class of antibiotics called macrolides, which includes the human drug azithromycin.

They'll get those drugs for seven to 10 days — or maybe longer if they still seem in danger. "When they need it, we treat them. If they don't need it, we don't," Rowles says.

A couple of months from now, when these pigs leave the nursery, they'll start getting another antibiotic in their feed, even if they're healthy. This drug, virginiamycin, is supposed to help pigs grow faster, or use feed more efficiently.

This pattern of antibiotic use is fairly typical. Most chicken farmers, pig farmers and beef producers use antibiotics to treat disease, prevent disease and promote faster growth. The percentage of antibiotics used for growth promotion is a matter of dispute, because the Food and Drug Administration's annual report on antibiotic use in farm animals doesn't provide that data. Some critics have claimed that it makes up most antibiotic use on the farm. A survey of antibiotic use in the pork industry found that the share was about 20 percent.

It all adds up to a statistic that shocks many people, and it's quoted often by critics of antibiotic use on the farm: 80 percent of all the antibiotics in the United States go into farm animals.

But this is where the big argument starts. Scientists disagree about whether this is something that we should worry about.

The worry is not so much that antibiotics will be in the meat we eat. By the time an animal is slaughtered, those residues are supposed to be gone. According to the Department of Agriculture, almost all of the time, they are.

The concern is around a different risk: That using antibiotics on the farm will mean that these drugs won't work when we humans need them, because in theory, the more an antibiotic is given to animals, the more quickly bacteria will adapt and become resistant to it.

These pigs, newly weaned from their mothers, are at their most vulnerable stage of life. They're getting antibiotics in their water to ward off bacterial infection. (Dan Charles/NPR)

Here's an example: A few months ago, a patient was going through chemotherapy at the National Institutes of Health near Washington, D.C. He came down with a terrible case of diarrhea. "He constantly needed to be rehydrated. We moved him to the ICU for a little bit of monitoring for a while," says Elise O'Connell, a physician in training at the NIH, who was caring for the patient.

Tests revealed that the man was infected with campylobacter, a bacteria that you usually pick up from contaminated chicken or turkey. This seemed odd, until the physicians realized that this patient's family had brought in some food from home, and that another member of the family who'd eaten that dish also had gotten sick for a couple of days.

The choice of treatment seemed obvious. "We started him on an antibiotic called azithromycin," recalls O'Connell.

At first the patient got better — and then he got worse again. Azithromycin wasn't working.

O'Connell switched to a different antibiotic, and that one did work.

So why didn't azithromycin work?

Possibly, because on a farm somewhere, chickens were getting treated with macrolide antibiotics — very similar to azithromycin. Campylobacter in the chicken may have become resistant to these antibiotics, then hitched a ride aboard meat to O'Connell's patient.

That's the risk many people working in public health say is very real. But there's passionate disagreement about how worrisome it is, and what we should do about it.

On the one hand, we have Scott Hurd, a veterinarian at Iowa State University who's generally sympathetic to meat producers. He points out that it's not enough just to show that something can happen. "In order to make effective, science-based decisions, we have to move beyond the 'cans' to actually calculating the probabilities," he says.

Think of all the things that have to come together before this actually would happen, he says.

First of all, bacteria have to become resistant to an antibiotic that's actually used to treat people. But, in fact, around three-quarters of the antibiotics that farmers use on animals are not used at all by humans or are used infrequently, such as tetracyclines or virginiamycin. So only a small portion of farm use could create bacteria that are resistant to drugs that you'll use.

"And then you've got to get those bacteria off the farm. And then someone has to get sick with those bacteria," he continues. This also shouldn't happen very often, he says, if people are careful about cooking and handling meat.

Finally, you have to get so sick from the contaminated meat that you need antibiotics. That doesn't happen very often, either. O'Connell's patient needed treatment because he was in chemotherapy; his immune system was compromised.

The point is, this whole chain of events is rare, Hurd says. It's not a big danger to the public. "All published, peer-reviewed scientific articles to date have demonstrated negligible risk from on-farm antibiotic use," he says.

Gail Hansen, a veterinarian who is now working with the Pew Health Group and a critic of antibiotic use on the farm, is unimpressed by Hurd's analysis. "If you just look at — does this antibiotic, given to this animal, make this person sick, so we can't treat them with that same antibiotic — that's such a very narrow piece of this whole interconnected puzzle," she says.

First of all, this kind of case may not happen often, but it's a big deal if it happens to you, she says.

But there are other risks that can't be so easily calculated.

For instance, bacteria have the peculiar ability to share genes, including genes that make them resistant to particular antibiotics. So there can be drug-resistant bacteria on meat that don't make us sick. Once in your gut, they could pass along their drug-resistance to bacteria that can make us sick.

"The other thing to remember is that most of the bacteria don't end in our meat," Hansen says. "That's the good news. Most of the bacteria in animals stay in their manure and don't end up on your meat. But that manure ends up somewhere."

It's spread on fields; it can go into waterways. There's not much research on this, but it probably increases the number of antibiotic-resistant bacteria everywhere.

When and how might some of those bacteria make us sick? We don't really know, Hansen says, but it's not a risk we should take. "If we don't have all the information we need to know for sure whether something is bad or not, let's give the environment and the people and the animals the benefit of the doubt, and not continue to do something that might be harmful," she says.

So this is where the argument ends up: When risks are uncertain, what do you do?

The Food and Drug Administration is working on rules that would stop antibiotics from being used just to help animals grow faster. The rules may also require farmers to get a veterinarian's approval before using most of these drugs.

Hansen wants the agency to go further and allow antibiotic use only when animals are sick or clearly in danger of getting sick. Scott Hurd disagrees; he says if farmers can't use antibiotics to prevent disease outbreaks, they'll end up with more sick animals. And that's not good for farmers or consumers.

It's a balance between agriculture and human medicine. It's also a balance between capturing the benefits of these "wonder drugs" now, and keeping them working in the future.

Comparing Antibiotics Used In Animals And People

Some of the antibiotics used on the farm are very similar to the drugs prescribed by doctors to treat people. Critics of antibiotic use in food animals say this is one reason why farmers should be more careful about how much and which drugs they use — they could be jeopardizing human health if bacteria become resistant to the drugs over time. But bacterial resistance to drugs doesn't always develop the same way or at the same rate. And some drugs given to animals aren't important for humans — for example, ionophores. Below is a table showing where animal and human antibiotics overlap. It includes the classes of antibiotics (cephalosporins, fluoroquinolones, macrolides and lincosamides) health authorities are most worried bacteria will develop resistance to, which could put human lives at risk. — Eliza Barclay

  In food animals In people
Drug class Market share* FDA-approved uses Market share** Specific examples of use
Tetracyclines In food animals 41% Treatment and control of infections and growth promotion in cattle, pigs and poultry Example: Chlortetracycline for growth promotion in cattle, pigs and poultry In people 3.5% Tetracycline for chlamydia
Ionophores In food animals 30% Treatment and control of infections and growth promotion in cattle and poultry Example: Monensin for growth promotion in beef calves In people 0 Not used in human medicine
Penicillins In food animals 6.5% Treatment and control of infections and growth promotion in cattle, pigs and poultry Example: Amoxicillin to treat a sick cow In people 44.4% Amoxicillin for ear infections
Macrolides In food animals 4.3% Treatment and control of infections and growth promotion in cattle, pigs and poultry Example: Erythromycin for growth promotion in chickens In people 5% Azithromycin for campylobacteriosis (infection from Campylobacter)
Sulfas In food animals 2.7% Treatment and control of infections and growth promotion in pigs Example: Sulfamethazine for growth promotion in pigs In people 14.6% Bactrim for urinary tract infections
Aminoglycosides In food animals 1.6% Treatment and control of infections and growth promotion in poultry Example: Gentamicin to prevent disease in turkey In people 6.4% Gentamicin for urinary tract infections
Lincosamides In food animals 1.4% Treatment and control of infections and growth promotion in pigs and poultry Example: Lincomycin to treat arthritis infection in pigs In people 2.2% Clindamycin for respiratory tract infections
Cephalosporins In food animals 0.2% Limited extra-label use in poultry Example: Limited extra-label use for poultry In people 15.1% Ceftriaxone for pneumonia and bacterial meningitis
Fluoroquinolones In food animals Sales are small but exact details not available Prescription use only to treat infections in cattle Example: Danofloxacin for respiratory disease in cattle In people 8.4% Cipro for staph infections
Streptogramins In food animals Exact sales details not available Treatment and control of infections and growth promotion in cattle, pigs and poultry Example: Virginiamycin for growth promotion in pigs In people Less than 1% Quinupristin/dalfopristin (QD) for strep and staph infections
Pleuromutilins In food animals Exact sales details not available Growth promotion in pigs Example: Tiamulin for dysentery in pigs In people Less than 1% Retapamulin for skin infections


* Share of total market sales for food animal use in 2011
** Share of total market sales for human use in 2011

This photo taken Aug. 21, 2009 shows Barbara Palermo looking on while making remarks in her chicken coop in Salem, Ore.
(Rick Bowmer/AP)
July 09, 2013

Champaign City Council Reviews Allowing Hens For Egg Production

The city of Champaign may follow the lead of other communities, like Urbana, by allowing residents to keep hens in their backyard for egg production.

It is a practice that has a lot of support, especially from people involved in sustainable farming.

Champaign currently prohibits residents from raising poultry in the city, but the city council begins a study session Tuesday night to evaluate the feasibility of changing that policy.

City Planner Lacey Rains Lowe said in preparation for that meeting, she has researched ordinances that allow residents to raise hens in other communities, like Evanston, just north of Chicago.

“They haven’t had a single complaint, which was pretty incredible,” Lowe said. “They of course restrict roosters, so that the noise issue is not a problem. They require a permit for the coop to be in place before chickens are allowed to be on the property. They have a minimum amount of square footage per chicken. Your feed must be in a predator proof container, which is essentially a container with a tight sealing lid so it doesn’t attract vermin.”

These are all things Lowe said the city can look at if it chooses to allow residents to raise chickens within the city.

Karen Carney wants to set up a chicken coop in the backyard of her home in Champaign.

“I’ve always been interested in trying to live as sustainably as possible,” she said.

Carney said while raising a few backyard chickens won't necessarily change the food industry, she believes it will help make food safer to eat.

“We’ve all heard those stories about chickens being kept in overcrowded cages and being susceptible to disease and this is just a much better life for the chicken and good eggs for your family,” Carney said.

Lowe said some major concerns that have been brought up about raising chickens in a residential neighborhood include odor issues, increased noise, and traffic generated by egg and meat sales.

The Champaign City Council meets Tuesday at 7 p.m.

Chicken cage
(Dan Charles/NPR)
June 27, 2013

What The Rise Of Cage-Free Eggs Means For Chickens

The typical life of an egg-laying chicken is beginning to change dramatically.

Ninety percent of the eggs we eat come from chickens that live in long lines of wire cages, about eight birds to a cage. Animal welfare groups have long been campaigning against these cages.

They are succeeding, and this is where the change starts. In recent years, several big food companies have promised to switch to "cage-free" eggs. They include Unilever, which sells Hellmann's mayonnaise, and Aramark, which supplies food to big companies, colleges and prisons.

Those promises set off a supply chain reaction. "There weren't enough cage-free eggs for us to do Hellmann's Light mayonnaise, initially," says Doug Balentine, director of nutrition and health for Unilever North America. "It's going to take us about five years of working with egg suppliers so that we can convert all the egg farmers, just to supply the eggs for Hellmann's mayonnaise."

Which brings us to a brand-new pair of chicken houses tucked into the rolling farmland near Hershey, Pa.

Inside one of those houses, 18,000 chickens are milling around on the floor. Some are perched on metal bars. A few are madly pecking away at the plastic covers on my shoes.

The chickens just arrived here a few weeks ago. So did the farmer, a taciturn young man named Harold Sensenig, who grew up just down the road.

"Been living here for about four weeks now. Moved in a week before the chickens came. Got married two weeks before that," he says.

These chickens aren't free-range or organic; they don't go outside. But they do get to roam around inside the house, which makes them cage-free.

Sensenig built this style of chicken house — and a bank financed it — on the strength of those promises by Unilever and Aramark.

Sensenig has a deal with a local egg buyer, Sauder's Eggs, which is paying twice the going rate for cage-free eggs. Sauder Eggs, in turn, supplies those eggs to Unilever and Aramark.

"It's the demand that's driving it," says Paul Sauder, who owns Sauder's Eggs. "I mean, I wouldn't take the risk of paying double for these eggs, versus commodity eggs, if I didn't have the demand pushing on the other side."

According to the United Egg Producers, about 7 percent of all eggs now come from cage-free houses. That's up from 3 percent five years ago. For Sauder's business, it's currently 10 or 12 percent, and growing every year.

It's more expensive to produce eggs this way, Sauder says. You need more buildings for the same number of chickens, because you can't stack the birds on several levels in the same house. There's also more work involved — somebody has to walk through the chicken house collecting stray eggs that chickens laid on the ground, rather than in their enclosed nests.

But the industry, he says, is responding to "the perception that cage-free is a better product than eggs from a conventional cage house."

"Do you believe that?" I ask.

Sauder pauses. "From a nutrition standpoint, the egg is the same," he says.

Yet as Sauder stands amid the crowd of chickens, he does seem pleased. You're closer to the animals, he says, the way farmers were 50 years ago. You also get to see chickens acting more like chickens, dust-bathing or perching on long metal rods up near the ceiling. "You come in here at nighttime, those things are all full up there, because birds migrate to the top perches. That's where they feel safest," he says.

There's still some argument, though, about whether that means the chickens are really better off.

In Michigan, scientists are carrying out a large-scale experiment with three different full-scale chicken houses. One has chickens in traditional cages; one has so-called enriched cages that are bigger, and include nests and perches; and a third house is cage-free.

"We have over 300 cameras mounted within those systems to collect data," says Janice Swanson, from Michigan State University. She's one of the scientists in charge of the study, which is funded by a consortium of egg producers.

Swanson says they are measuring every aspect of each system: how clean the air is; how healthy the chickens are; how much it costs; how each system affects a chicken's welfare.

On the third floor of Michigan State's animal sciences building, teams of students are carefully watching videotapes, counting how often the chickens do things like spread their wings or peck each other.

Swanson says it's important to measure all of these things because there may be trade-offs between different goals.

For instance, in cage-free systems, chicken litter builds up on the floor, so chickens scratch around and dust-bathe in their own waste. "There are concerns about that, relative to egg safety," he says. "Now, for the hen's behavioral repertoire, this is cool! We can get down and dust-bathe, and so on."

The experiment has been running for a year now, and the scientists have released some preliminary observations. Here are just a few: Hens in cages were cleaner, but cage-free chickens kept more of their feathers. Cage-free hens may have had more freedom, but twice as many of them died during the year.

Swanson says it's too early to draw any firm conclusions, though, because these observations are from just one production cycle.


Michael Madigan
(Seth Perlman/AP)
May 28, 2013

Illinois House Approves 'Puppy Lemon' Law

The House has approved a plan adding more protections for Illinois consumers who buy a dog or cat at a pet store and find out the pet is gravely ill.

House members voted 67-49 Monday.

The Senate approved the measure known as a "puppy lemon law" earlier this month. But House changes will require Senate concurrence.

The legislation allows buyers to be reimbursed for veterinary fees, get a replacement or a full refund if the animal dies within 21 days of purchase. It also allows them to return the animal within a year if it has a congenital or hereditary condition. Both require a veterinarian's written statement.

Opponents say the bill is too far-reaching.

Gov. Pat Quinn supports the law.

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