The media are in a kerfuffle about a short-term egg shortage caused by Target and other supermarket chains dropping a major supplier, Sparboe Farms, following reports that workers at its production facilities abused chickens and failed to follow the company’s animal welfare policy. The revelations were punctuated by a graphic undercover video released by animal rights group Mercy for Animals, which showed workers stuffing chickens into cramped battery cages, pulling rotting carcasses out of cages, “torturing” birds by swinging them around by their legs, and so on. No matter how you feel about animal rights, it’s not pleasant to watch.
Sparboe, for its part, has shifted its damage control into overdrive, posting updates about steps it has taken to “rectify problems” and pointing out that it is the first egg supplier to receive USDA certification. Which, given these reports, provides some insight into the worth of government certifications.
I expect a government response will be forthcoming, and Sparboe may face fines and possibly a regiment of FDA inspectors swarming over its farms in the months to come. But anything the government can do in its enforcement role pales next to the punishment which can be meted out by the market. Even if millions of consumers haven’t suddenly adopted veganism in response to the video, they still have let their displeasure be known, and the result is that Sparboe has lost significant business and is now forced to reevaluate its practices in order to regain consumer trust. Which is exactly as it should be. No amount of regulatory oversight will prevent every problem in our food supply (this year has also seen the deadliest listeria outbreak, from tainted cantaloupe, since the 1920s), but with the ease with which information disseminates online, the market will help ensure such problems do not go unnoticed by consumers, who are then free to vote their conscience. If only the market was free to punish every business, no matter how large or small, for bad decisions and unethical practices.