Many of the largest U.S. sellers of organic eggs boast that their hens are vegetarian, and for an increasingly food-curious public, this may be great advertising. . . .
Yet for the chickens, who are natural omnivores that readily devour bugs and small animals when they’re available, the forced vegetarianism can be a disaster.
Chickens on an unsupplemented vegetarian diet typically fall short of an essential protein-based amino acid known as methionine, and without it, they fall ill. Worse, the birds will also turn on each other, seeking nutrients by pecking at each other, and these incidents can escalate into a henhouse bloodbath, farmers say.
“They’re really like little raptors – they want meat,” said Blake Alexandre, the owner of a 30,000 chicken operation in far northern California that keeps its birds on pasture. “The idea that they ought to be vegetarians is ridiculous.”
“This is one of those problems caused by the fact that most Americans are so far removed from their food supply,” said Tracy Favre, a farmer and organic inspector who serves on the federal advisory board for organic products. “When I see eggs in the supermarket being advertised as vegetarian this and that, I cringe.”