Shift To Cage-Free Eggs Is Likely To Disappoint

May 09, 2016

As we move to a more cage-free supply of eggs, there is no doubt prices will go up, and that the transparency of what the term actually means will anger many shoppers.

Each week brings headlines and press releases telling us of more restaurants and food products that are changing over to using cage-free eggs, partly for animal welfare and partly as a marketing message to make us feel better about that brand’s commitment to a better, more humane food supply. To date over 160 major companies including McDonald’s, Disney, Kroger, Campbell Soup, Walmart, ConAgra, Starbucks and even White Castle have announced that they will shift to cage-free eggs, most by the year 2025. The list includes every major fast food chain and many of America’s most popular food brands.

In September 2015, BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, hosted an event at its New York City headquarters on the topic, titled The Humane Economy. There, leaders from financial firms representing $17 trillion in combined assets-under-management gathered to discuss the material risks associated with animal cruelty in the food supply, and financial opportunities associated with embracing issues like shifting to cage-free eggs.

Eggs are big business. The American Egg Board predicts that the average American in 2016 will consume 263.2 eggs this year, which according to USDA adds up to over a $10 billion dollar a year industry. This move, led by a generation where animal welfare is top of mind, needs to be discussed. Cage-free may not be what most consumers think it is and might not be able to be realized by many of these companies even by 2025.


Of the 8.5 billion eggs produced in March of this year, approximately 8.6 percent (data as of September 2015) were cage-free. As of May 6, 2016, the USDA National Retail Report reported that the advertised prices for shell eggs and egg products sold in almost half of the 29,100 major retail supermarkets surveyed in the week of May 6 through May 12 was 1.07 cents a dozen for white large USDA Grade A eggs while cage-free large white eggs sold at $2.49; over 2.3 times as expensive. The Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply,  a group made up of animal welfare scientists, academic institutions, non-government organizations, egg suppliers, and restaurant/foodservice and food retail companies, estimates that it costs a farmer 36 percent more to run a cage-free farm. A cage-free housing system requires more labor and can’t contain as many birds.

No one – shoppers, farmers or retailers – wants animals to be tortured. Frankly for the egg producers it’s simply not good business. But is cage-free the answer or just great marketing? In February of this year, Trader Joe’s posted an announcement on its website about its move in 2005 to have its private label eggs 100% cage-free. “Since then, we have seen a steady increase in our sales of cage-free eggs," the update reports; and 62% of all the eggs they sell are cage-free”(as compared to less than 10% across all supermarkets in the U.S.).

The country’s largest egg suppliers are also now addressing this issue by making cage-free announcements of their own. Cage-free is “the future of our industry and our business” declared Hickman’s Family Farms—a major Arizona-based egg producer—last year in a press release announcement. Rose Acre Farms, America’s second-largest egg producer—as well as Michael Foods and Rembrandt Foods—the country’s top two processed egg suppliers—have also committed to cage-free production.

Back in 2008 the Humane Society of the United States campaigned for and won Proposition 2 (by a two to one majority) in California (the sixth largest egg producing state), which called for new standards for animal welfare starting in 2015. The topline of the proposition was to allow egg-laying hens to lie down, stand up, fully extend their wings and legs and turn around freely. In 2012 the European Union Council Directive banned all battery cages, the same small wire cages where laying hens spend their lives in approximately 67 to 76 square inches of space and are arranged in rows of identical connected cages in which it is estimated that over 90% of our egg-laying chickens are housed here in the U.S. There are opponents who claim that the regulation is not specific enough and does not specify the exact “housing” dimensions or requirements, and of course those who insist that this proposition will drive up the cost and retail prices. Others insist that the regulation has caused a drop in egg production (a 25% drop already according to the United Egg Producers) and has hurt California egg farmers.

According to the Humane Society, which has effectively brought the issue to the forefront and is leading the change, cage-free chickens can freely roam inside their barns, but often never see daylight; these housing systems include platforms, tiers and nesting spaces instead of the birds being confined to individual cages. Currently there is no USDA legal definition for cage-free, leading to more consumer confusion and mistrust of the claims.

The USDA’s definition for free-range is that birds must have access to the outdoors, but does not state a minimum space requirement. The Humane Farm Animal Care announced over two years ago their standards which are labeled on pack as Certified Humane for free-range or pasture-raised to help clarify what each term means.

I am all for increasing transparency in food production as it is critical for food safety, traceability, sustainability and building confidence in our food supply. Unfortunately there are misleading food labels especially in terms of animal welfare, and the Animal Welfare Institute recently released a terrific labeling guide for consumers to help decipher what’s important when reading labels. In terms of animal welfare, AWI points out that there are many unverified claims – and that compliance is not verified on the farm by third-party audit.

As we move to a more cage-free supply of eggs, there is no doubt prices will go up, and that the transparency of what the term actually means will anger many as they discover their imagery of a happy go lucky hen running through the field is far from the truth. Cage-free may be a good baby step, but if we really want total animal welfare we will have to do more and perhaps suffer the consequences. In Alternative Systems for Poultry: Health, Welfare and Productivity, the authors Victoria Sandilands and Paul Hocking, detail how in Denmark, a huge supplier of eggs in the EU, saw the cost of their eggs rise 50% when they changed to a minimum requirement of 600 square cm (approximately 236 square inches) of space per bird, dropping their market share to almost half of what it was prior.

We all agree someone has to pay for the change, but let’s be clear about exactly what is and what is not changing.