In the last few years, company after company announced they will switch to cage-free eggs. Almost 200 U.S. companies, including every major grocery store and fast-food chain, have pledged to transition to cage-free eggs by 2025. Fifteen or so years ago, no one cared about the welfare of chickens. Now, within a few years most of the eggs in the U.S. will be cage-free.
It will be costly for American egg producers to make the switch to cage-free systems. Less than 30 million of the over 300 million laying hens in the U.S. are now raised in cage-free systems, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). To meet all of the new commitments, the egg industry will have to convert more than half of its production to cage-free systems by 2025. It will cost about $40 per bird to build a cage-free system, egg producers estimate, which will cost U.S. egg producers a whopping $5.6 billion by 2025 if commitments are realized.
So, why are they switching? To answer that question, we first need to understand the difference between battery cages and cage-free systems. Battery cages are small cages, only 67 square inches, which is less space than one sheet of letter-sized paper. Hens spend their entire lives confined in those small spaces and are unable to even spread their wings, let alone engage in normal chicken behaviors such as nesting, perching or dust-bathing. Experts say such behaviors are necessary for hen welfare.
“The worst torture to which a battery hen is exposed is the inability to retire somewhere for the laying act,” said Nobel Prize winner Dr. Konrad Lorenz. “For the person who knows something about animals it is truly heart-rending to watch how a chicken tries again and again to crawl beneath her fellow cagemates to search there in vain for cover.”
In cage-free systems hens can walk, spread their wings and lay their eggs in nests, which are also necessary and important behaviors for their welfare. Most cage-free hens live on farms that are third-party audited by certification programs which mandate that perching and dust-bathing areas are provided. Cage-free systems are also safer for the humans that consume the eggs hens lay. Caged hens pose a higher salmonella risk. An EU-wide survey took over 30,000 samples from over 5,000 farming operations in two dozen countries. Researchers found significantly higher salmonella rates among operations that housed hens in cages.
Animal welfare groups are spreading awareness about cruel battery cages
Animal welfare groups have been spreading awareness about battery cages through various campaigns. The Humane League is one of them. As the Washington Post said of the organization, it focuses “almost exclusively on pushing companies to adopt cage-free eggs.” One big tactic the group employs is creating websites that target specific companies. One of its sites targets Buffalo Wild Wings, claiming the restaurant chain supports animal cruelty because it continues to source eggs from caged hens.
The Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS) targeted Publix, the fifth largest grocery chain, urging the company to ditch caged eggs. The group took out full-page newspaper ads and television commercials plus used social media and a website, CagedForPublix. As a result, Publix announced in July that it would switch to cage-free eggs.
All of the awareness animal welfare groups have raised is driving consumer demand for cage-free eggs. Polls over the past few years show that consumers are concerned about animal welfare. A 2013 survey by the American Humane Association found that 89 percent of those polled said they were very concerned about farm animal welfare, and 74 percent said they were willing to pay more for humanely-raised meat, dairy and eggs. The humanely-raised label was ranked the highest in importance over organic, natural and antibiotic-free.
Back in April, TriplePundit talked to Josh Balk, senior food policy director for HSUS. He said that it has “fortunately become very difficult for major food companies to appear on the side of animal abuse, in this case, the cruel confinement of hens in tiny cages.” We also talked to Hannah Hafter, senior program leader for activism at the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC), who said of the cage-free egg movement, “I believe it’s consumer driven.”
Image credit: Flickr/Joel Kramer