One of the most popular recent food trends is the shift to cage-free eggs. Throughout 2015 many major food companies such as General Mills, restaurant chains such as Dunkin Donuts, and food manufacturers such as ConAgra Foods announced transitioning to the use of cage-free eggs. Arguably one of the most influential players in the food industry, the fast-food giant McDonalds announced in September, 2015 its plans to replace all eggs (approximately 2 billion per year) used in its nearly 16,000 U.S. and Canadian restaurants with cage-free eggs. McDonalds explained that the transition will likely take ten years to complete because egg producers need time to convert their facilities to cage-free.
The transition to cage-free eggs shows no signs of slowing. While I was in the process of writing this post on January 17, 2016, Target also announced a plan to transition to cage-free eggs by 2025. This leads to the inevitable question, what has prompted this transition?
McDonalds gave the following explanation in its press release, "Our customers are increasingly interested in knowing more about their food and where it comes from," McDonald's USA President Mike Andres said in a statement. "Our decision to source only cage-free eggs reinforces the focus we place on food quality and our menu to meet and exceed our customers' expectations." Target’s CEO explains the retailer’s decision to transition to cage-free was “due in part to a campaign by the Humane Society of the United States”. He also explained, “The momentum has been unstoppable since McDonald's made its cage-free announcement in September.”
What exactly does the Humane Society say about traditional vs. cage-free eggs?
According to the Humane Society, “The vast majority of egg-laying hens in the United States are confined in battery cages. On average, each caged laying hen is afforded only 67 square inches of cage space—less space than a single sheet of letter-sized paper on which to live her entire life. Unable even to spread their wings, caged laying hens are among the most intensively confined animals in agribusiness. Caged hens also suffer from the denial of many natural behaviors such as nesting, perching, and dustbathing, all important for hen welfare.” By contrast cage-free hens are able to walk, spread their wings and lay their eggs in nests. Paul Sauder, a top executive at Sauder’s Eggs, a big producer in Pennsylvania, was recently quoted in Modern Farmer, in which he explained keeping cage-free hens requires more space, more feed (the hens eat more because they move around more), and results in fewer eggs produced per chicken.
The transition to cage-free eggs has also been playing out on the political and legal landscapes. In 2008, California passed a ballot measure banning by January 1, 2015 the inhumane confinement of egg-laying hens, breeding pigs, and veal calves in cages so small the animals cannot stretch their limbs, lie down, or turn around. Two years later, California passed a law mandating that all whole eggs intended for human consumption in the state meet the same cage-free standards as the ballot measure. In response the states of Missouri, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kentucky, Iowa, and Alabama have filed a suit against California challenging the law in the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal. Paul previously posted on the case in a post that can be read here.
Many states have followed California’s lead and, either through laws or ballot initiatives, restricted the use of battery cages thereby transitioning to the production of cage-free eggs. Currently, there is a proposed ballot measure in Massachusetts that if passed, would ban the production and sale in the state of eggs from hens and meat from pigs and calves kept in tight enclosures starting in January 2022. For selling of shell eggs in Massachusetts, each hen would have to have access to at least 1.5 square feet of usable floor space.
Have farmers been able to transition to producing cage-free eggs?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently reported that approximately 8.6 percent of the country's egg-laying hens, or 23.6 million birds, were cage-free as of September 2015 – up from 15 million birds four years ago and 9.1 million eight years earlier.
Given the widespread interest in and acceptance of the transition to cage-free eggs, it appears that what once appeared to be a food trend is, in actuality, a marked shift in the way consumers expect farm animals to be treated and raised in our country.