The Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply (CSES) has just provided a $6 million grant for a study of the sustainability of hen housing systems at egg farms. While the word "sustainable" conjures up images of optimal free range conditions, the specific focus is on three kinds of housing systems at commercial egg farms. That makes sense when you consider the Coalition's membership, which consists of a laundry list of corporate food partners such as McDonald's, Cargill Kitchen Solutions, Cracker Barrel Country Store, Inc. and Bob Evans Farms. It also raises some interesting questions about how deeply into sustainability large companies can go and still deliver the massive quantities of product they need to stay competitive.
The CSES Egg Farm Study
The study will be conducted jointly by the University of California - Davis and Michigan State University. Along with affordability as a foundational issue, the study will cover environmental impacts, impacts on the health and well being of the hens, food safety, and worker safety and seasonal and life cycle factors. The three kinds of housing under study are small conventional cages; larger cages that enable natural behaviors including foraging and dust bathing; and large enclosures that basically enable hens to move freely, though they are still housed entirely in a building.
Information and Choice
The goal of the study is to come up with comparative information in a form usable by consumers. Though it won't be any Organic Egg Scorecard, it is similar in concept to the EPA's proposal for "pollution labeling" on new cars, or New York City's rule on calorie posters in fast food restaurants. Not all consumers will use the information, but it opens up an option that was not previously available.
Sustainability and Competitiveness
When it comes to sustainability, the food industry faces the same tension between cost and competitiveness as any other manufacturer. To some extent that can be a moot point, for example in terms of energy conservation, water conservation and waste reduction at the point of manufacture. These actions cut costs and provide a valuable platform for promotion and community relations. However, when you get into the nitty gritty of the product itself, the range of potential for improvement shrinks, and companies need to go farther afield in order to achieve meaningful results. Levi-Strauss is one example of a manufacturer that has progressed from factory-based conservation to focusing on improving its supply chain, and from there into community development.
A Challenge for the Food Service Industry
For the food industry, the challenge is to go beyond making restaurants and other retail operations more energy efficient and begin to exert more pressure on suppliers. Egg-based foods are a good example of the need for supply chain improvements, given the recent contamination issues that can affect consumer confidence in retailers, along with rising concerns over the impact of factory farm waste on local communities. While the CSES study has a relatively narrow focus, it could provide some insights that lead to more meaningful changes in the future.
Image: Egg by MinimalistPhotography101.com on flickr.com.
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.