The issue is man's humanity to chicken vs. cheap egg production, and area Giant Food stores are offering customers a chance to vote with their wallets.
For the past two months, consumers have been given a choice between eggs from chickens who spend their lives in crowded wire cages and those from uncaged hens from Amish farms in Lancaster County, Pa.
As always, freedom has a price. Free-range eggs cost approximately $1.89 a dozen, roughly $1 more than those of their caged counterparts. So far, buyers are flocking to the cheaper eggs.
"Overall, of the thousands and thousands of eggs we sell each week, sales are very slow" for free-range eggs, said Odonna Mathews, vice president for consumer affairs for Giant's 154 area stores.
Ben Brandt of Ellicott City, who was shopping yesterday at the Giant in the Dorsey's Search village of Columbia, took a lighthearted view of eggs from presumably happier chickens. "Do you laugh more if you eat these eggs?" he asked. He opted for eggs from caged chickens, basing his decision on price.
Others, however, saw value in the more expensive eggs.
Placing a dozen free-range eggs in her cart, Monika Botsai of Ellicott City said that organic concerns were the main reason behind her willingness to pay the extra price. "I'm trying to use organic things," she explained. "I grow all my own vegetables."
But she added, "At least they're from happy chickens."
Chicken happiness is difficult to assess.
Free-range conjures an image of the way chickens traditionally lived, roaming wherever their avian whims took them around the farm and being returned to the henhouse at night for protection against foxes.
A nice picture, but not exactly how the Lancaster County chickens live. They typically spend their lives inside large buildings equipped with nesting boxes, ventilation and sawdust or similar flooring material that allows them to scratch.
From the viewpoint of the Humane Society of the United States, which launched a consumer campaign last spring to get area Giant and Safeway stores to stock free-range eggs, that's a lot better than life in a commercial coop.
Ninety-seven percent of eggs produced in the United States come from "hens crowded into cages so small they can't even spread their wings," said Dr. Melanie Adcock, a veterinarian and program director for the Humane Society's farm animals division.
Chickens need to be free to interact socially to establish and maintain order in the flock, she said. They need to be able to take dust baths, sit on perches, lay their eggs in nests and peck at the ground for the occasional tasty insect.
"We're not talking about turning all the hens free to roam the countryside," she said. "We're not talking about turning back the clock."
She noted that Humane Society representatives checked out the farms in Lancaster County to be sure the eggs were from uncaged chickens as claimed.
Maryland Egg Council President Douglas E. Statler said that he didn't know of any large Maryland operations where chickens are uncaged. But in an industry that has seen five years of slumping egg consumption nationally, if customers want eggs from free-range chickens, that's what they'll get, he said.
"I don't know if chickens are emotionally happier in cages or free-range. I assume they're happier on free range," Mr. Statler said.
Happiness aside, there is no difference in the health value of eggs from free-range or caged hens, said Thomas O. Meredith Jr., administrator of grading services, egg inspection and grain laws for the Maryland Department of Agriculture.
"The organic people think if the hens eat grass or something, you get a healthier egg. That's not true. An egg is an egg," he said.
Giant introduced the eggs after receiving about 800 requests from Humane Society members in Maryland, Virginia and Washington.
The requests came in after the society mailed out 8,000 letters as part of its free-range eggs campaign.
Safeway also received 700 to 800 requests, but is not offering free-range eggs. Safeway's purchasing manager went to Lancaster County and learned that the farms "would not, in any way, be able to meet our needs," said C. Anne Cockrell, consumer affairs manager.
While delicatessen managers at several area Giant stores agreed that relatively few customers to date seem willing to pay the price of eggs from happier chickens, some have seen slow but steady sales increases.
Monte DeWitt, of Dorsey's Search Giant, said that his store now sells about 45 to 60 dozen free-range eggs a week. At the Hunt Valley Giant, delicatessen manager Frank Mudd said he is selling two cases a week.
William Warren, delicatessen manager at the Giant on Forest Drive in Annapolis, said that he couldn't assess a sales trend because he's been having trouble getting the eggs for several weeks. He said he plans to keep stocking them for a month or so before deciding whether to continue reordering.