The egg industry is often a brutal one, with egg-laying hens hardly living the idyllic life often portrayed on those packages you buy at the supermarket. But the outlook is improving for chickens, due largely to the efforts of the Humane Society. 2015 has been a breakthrough year for the cage-free movement, which has seen companies including Carnival Cruises, Caribou Coffee, Peet’s Coffee, Shake Shack, McDonald’s and Starbucks promise to go cage-free in the next few years. Now add Nestlé’s American operations to the list of companies pledging to reduce animal cruelty within their supply chains.
Last week, Nestlé announced that it will switch to 100 percent cage-free eggs within the U.S. by 2020. The company estimates its annual use of eggs reaching 20 million pounds (9 million kilograms), in products that range from ice cream to frozen dinners to cookie dough. As for its supply chain in Europe and other global regions, the company claims it is working with the NGO World Animal Protection to expand the use of cage-free eggs throughout the rest of its operations.
According to the Humane Society, Nestlé’s transition to cage-free eggs means 780,000 fewer birds will be confined in battery cages annually. That means fewer hens that are denied the ability to act out their natural behavior, which includes dustbathing, nesting and perching. The Humane Society says the averaged caged hen is afforded about 67 square inches (432 square centimeters) of cage space — less room than what can be squeezed within a sheet of letter-sized (or A4) office paper.
It is important to point out, however, that “cage-free” does not necessarily mean cruelty free. As the Humane Society notes, cage-free hens will have more room to move around, but such a label does not guarantee that they spend any time outdoors. Beak cutting is still common practice at many hatcheries. Forced molting, which involves starving hens or feeding them a low-energy diet to manipulate the egg-laying cycle, is also the norm. Furthermore, almost all commercial egg operations kill male chicks shortly after they are hatched — a cruel and wasteful practice that’s done because the chickens raised for egg-laying are not as large as the ones used to produce meat.
Nevertheless, the advocacy of organizations, such as the Humane Society, are raising awareness of animal welfare issues, including gestation crates and tail docking. And as more consumers learn about what happens to animals in order to make their food products, they are leaning on companies to change their ways. The result is that firms such as Nestlé really have no choice but to source more responsible ingredients if they are going to keep their customers.
Image credit: David Paul Morris/For the Humane Society