A petition posted by the Humane League on the website Change.org calling for Starbucks to source only eggs from cage-free hens shows a lack of understanding of how hens are housed in the U.S. and in Europe. At first I was just going to laugh this online petition off, but then I realized that the millions of people who could be persuaded to shell out $5 for a cup of bitter coffee would probably include a fair number of folks who would believe the misstatements in the petition, so I thought some comment was merited.

The petition letter that the Humane League would like us all to sign tells Starbucks that, “Battery cage farms cram egg-laying hens into tiny wire cages. With less room than a sheet of computer paper to live in for virtually their entire lives, these poor animals are unable to spread their wings or engage in any of their natural behaviors.” By sheet of computer paper, I will guess they are referring to a standard 8.5 by 11.0 inch piece of paper. The current UEP-Certified standard calls for hens to be housed at not less than 67 square inches of cage floor space per hen and there are several hens per cage. So the space the birds move around in each day is actually 67 square inches multiplied by the number of birds in the cage. So, unless there is only one bird in each cage, there is going to be more than 93.5 square inches (8.5 multiplied by 11.0) of floor space in the cage.

The statement that hens can’t spread their wings or engage in “any of their natural behaviors” is also incorrect. Birds in conventional or “battery” cages do stretch their wings, eat, drink, lay eggs, preen and exhibit the same behaviors as dust bathing, without the dirt pile.

The petition letter also states, “This outdated agricultural practice is so cruel that it is already illegal in the entire European Union and several states in the US.” Does this agricultural practice refer to housing hens in battery cages? If so, then use of this type of cage has been banned in the EU, but enriched cages are allowed in most EU countries. The space standard for white hens in the EU in enriched cages is 116 square inches per bird.

There are no states in the U.S. that have banned the use of cages. The language of Proposition 2 asked that hens be able to stand up, sit down, and spread their wings without touching the sides of the enclosure or another bird. Research has shown that in groups of nine hens or more, 116 square inches per hen allows for this to be met. The regulations for California are set at 116 square inches per bird in groups of 9 birds or more in any type of cage. This means that at the current time cages have not been banned in any state.

Starbucks has an animal welfare statement on its website which states, “Just as with our coffee, Starbucks goal is for our food to be produced under the highest quality and ethical standards. One way we hope to help accomplish this is by establishing a buying preference that encourages our suppliers in North America to use animal welfare-friendly practices and provide ingredients such as cage-free eggs, gestation crate-free pork, and poultry processed through more humane systems such as CAK (controlled-atmosphere killing).”

Starbucks' statement certainly opens the door for activists to ask the company to go forward and buy only cage-free eggs. Unfortunately, the Humane League’s petition doesn’t clearly explain the choices that egg buyers have. U.S. egg producers are going to transition out of battery cages. The industry needs to come up with standards for enriched housing quickly and explain these standards to the public before the enriched option gets bypassed and the market goes straight to cage-free.