Recently, the Cambridge News ran a story about students from Cambridge's Anglia Ruskin University picketing a Tesco's store to try to persuade it to stop selling eggs from caged hens, a subject which becomes close to my daughters' hearts every time it gets an airing; they then bring it close to my ears. (Maybe the protesters took advantage of the student union's free bus to Tesco...)
I'm sorry that animals are living in squalour and misery to feed us for less. But, in our broken society where kids live with drug-taking parents in a narrative so bleak it would have rendered Dickens suicidal, parents look at the financial news and weep, and older folk live emptily in the carpeted gulags of some nursing-homes, the fates of our feathered friends are not that high on my agenda.
Nevertheless, I'm not made of stone, so as I had to be in town today, I had a walk down Mill Road, the cosmopolitan thoroughfare that the anti-Tesco campaigners are always going on about, and which is on Anglia Ruskin University's doorstep. My mission: to find out whether the small, independent traders whom the above state they defend are on-message as regards caged hens. My report follows:
If you want compassion for chickens, then Al Amin at number 100 was the clear winner, as it sold only eggs from free-range hens. On the other hand, Winfield Chinese Supermarket at no. 58 sold only caged chickens' eggs; I don't know the status of the quails and ducks whose produce was also available. (I only recently found out that there was such a thing as battery ducks, when Minora told me.)
Balv's Superette at no. 160 sold eggs from both caged and free-range hens, as did the Nip-In Express at no. 30. Conversely, there was no identification visible on the eggs for sale in unmarked boxes in Notun Bangla Bazar at no. 194, or in Spice-Gate International Food Centre at no. 14.
One store I dropped into was sold out of eggs, and in another where I couldn't find them a harrassed-looking lady behind the counter was trying to convince a young man that four cans of 9% lager was quite enough for him - he was rather a big chap.
I'm not quite sure why the campaigners have chosen Tesco's, which gives shoppers a choice between free-range and caged chickens and their eggs. It could be that they are yet to devise coping-mechanisms for the misery of other beings that is woven into many of our daily choices; possibly they ascribe to the view that most of us are economic automata; or maybe they just don't like Tesco's. Probably all three, and more, are intermixed.
Also to be factored in is celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall's campaign against Tesco's intensive-rearing techniques. However, this man has form: in January 2008 he was unmasked by an industry watchdog as having "allowed needless cruelty" at the battery-farm he set up to show viewers the horror of it all. Apparently it wasn't horrible enough already.
I don't doubt the sincerity of the protesters at Tesco's, I merely doubt their appreciation of situations where the pennies matter. If they really want to make a difference, they could lobby the Government to make it more rewarding for farmers to breed free-range chickens than it is at present, without increasing their impact on ordinary folks' pockets. Who knows, they might even be inspired to give the many Halal meat outlets in Cambridge some friendly advice on animal welfare.
But if they still think that campaigning for eggs to come from free-range chickens is the answer, then maybe as well as picketing Tesco's they might have a look at some of the establishments I've listed above that sell eggs from caged hens.