By Anna Sorokina, A&E editor

In an effort to improve living conditions for chickens housed in tiny wire spaces, 13 food companies are boycotting the use of cages in egg production.

On Jan. 29, The Humane League announced its campaign department had convinced Target, Denny’s, Campbell’s Soup, Wendy’s, P.F. Chang’s, California Pizza Kitchen, Mondelēz International and six other organizations to switch to cage-free eggs. The Humane League is a national nonprofit group that works to end the cruelties of factory farming and encourages reduced meat consumption through public outreach and corporate campaigns.

The News spoke to Chris Hendrickson, Boston grassroots director of the organization, about the campaign and his League’s ongoing advocacy for better treatment of animals in the food industry.

The Huntington News: In December 2015, The Humane League met with a Denny’s representative, and in January, Denny’s became the first egg-heavy dining service to promise to completely end its support of cages in egg production. How did your organization achieve this?

Chris Hendrickson: Our campaigns department worked closely with Denny’s by talking to their management and providing them with language for the statement. People could also sign a petition online, asking [the company] to go cage-free. So it was a joint coalition between meeting with Denny’s management and public support.

HN: How do you choose which companies to negotiate with?

CH: We interact with different companies and look at those who already have animal welfare on their website… It’s a systematic approach to who would be most likely to enact these policies.

HN: How long does the typical campaign take, from the beginning of negotiations to a company’s final promise?

CH: It can take anywhere from a few days to months. A couple months ago, Taco Bell committed to go cage-free by the end of 2016 and added 13 certified vegetarian options that they didn’t have prior to negotiations. Costco took a bit longer: they committed [to the change] eight years ago but didn’t follow through. We put pressure on them by giving out leaflets in front of their stores to let people know that [the company] wasn’t true to their word. We don’t want to get to the point where we’re leafleting in front of their stores, though.

HN: Egg-laying hens on cage-free farms still face cruel conditions like extreme overcrowding. Why does The Humane League promote going cage-free if the effect of this change is rather minor?

CH: Because it’s objectively an increase in animal welfare. Without cages, chickens can lay eggs in a nest, spread wings, dust bathe and have access to more natural chicken behaviors. If cats and dogs lived in conditions that most chickens live in, [people] would oppose these conditions. There is also a great article from HSUS [Humane Society of the United States] about lesser concentration of stress hormones in chickens who are cage-free, which provides more nutrients for the consumers.

HN: How effective is leafleting and reaching students through humane education?

CH: We actually distributed 1.2 million leaflets and reached 26,000 students in 2015. These practices are extremely effective. For 75 to 100 leaflets handed out, about one person significantly changes their diet by going vegetarian or vegan. I constantly hear, “I received your leaflet last semester and went vegan because of it.”

HN: How do you estimate these numbers?

CH: Humane League Labs [The Humane League’s research project that carries out direct testing to improve vegan advocacy efforts] put surveys inside of booklets so people can fill [them] out on how they changed their diet. It’s not foolproof data, but it’s the best we can get.

HN: The Humane League has influenced many schools in Philadelphia, Boston and Baltimore to adopt Meatless Monday policies. Are other schools joining the movement?

CH: Yes, right now we’re working on a campaign at Peabody School System. Humane Society of the United States is also trying to implement Meatless Mondays into schools, so we work closely with them. Any student can email The Humane League to get [Meatless Mondays] going at their school, and we’re willing to take as long as possible to implement this policy. Meatless Mondays is a simple practice that creates long term change so we want to have positive discussions with the community about its benefits.

HN: The Humane League does online and grassroots outreach, and specific institutional campaigns do corporate outreach. Which one of these techniques produces the best results in terms of animal advocacy?

CH: All of them work together; they are all important parts of what we do. Grassroots outreach works with people on a local level… The campaigns department works to give customers more choices that are better for animal welfare. After all, companies respond to consumer demand. Online activism creates a new demographic of people who care about animal rights.

HN: Why doesn’t The Humane League spend more time protesting and engaging in confrontation, like another major animal advocacy organization, People for the Ethical Treatment of animals (PETA)?

CH: We’re not opposed to it… but we want to use data-driven practices. Leafleting works [and] campaigning works, so we want to practice these activities. We actually work together with PETA to create free vegetarian and vegan starter guides that are printed and distributed by PETA in Somerville, Brookline and Cambridge.

HN: What are The Humane League’s next steps in fighting animal cruelty?

CH: Continue to expand the campaigns department, continue to grow our grassroots community and increase our presence on social media so we can convey the message to reduce animal cruelty and suffering.

Photo courtesy David Goehring, Creative Commons