Cage-free egg commitments are in the spotlight — and may cost companies billions
- Hundreds of companies have promised to sell only cage-free eggs by 2025, according to Bloomberg — but fulfilling these pledges will carry a very large price tag.
- The transition to cage-free for more than 300 million egg-laying hens could cost Walmart, McDonald's, General Mills and other companies a collective $7 billion, Christine McCracken, a Rabobank protein analyst, told Bloomberg.
- McCracken estimated U.S. companies are about one-quarter of the way toward fulfilling these commitments, while the Egg Industry Center at Iowa State University put the total current cage-free production figure at about 17% by using U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics.
As consumers are increasingly looking for more humane protein products at the grocery store and in restaurants, Big Food has been responding. Despite the exponential cost, some of the largest manufacturers and retailers in the country have pledged to go cage-free.
A typical cage-free space is 144 square inches per hen, according to the United Egg Producers, while standard battery cages provide only 67 to 86 square inches. Hens in cage-free production facilities also must have space to exhibit natural behaviors such as scratching, perching and nesting.
Producers are gradually transitioning to cage-free housing for hundreds of millions of egg-laying hens, which is no small feat. And their progress is being monitored by both consumers and animal welfare organizations — indicating corporate pledges aren't being taken for granted and focus will remain on the issue.
The Humane Society of the United States recently asked 100 of the largest food firms to indicate by June 1 how they're improving their treatment of chickens and pigs, whether they will be able to meet requirements of state laws regarding animal housing, and how they're adding more plant-based products to their portfolios, Bloomberg reported. While some of these companies — such as Kraft Heinz, General Mills and Campbell Soup — indicated they were moving forward on their commitments, McDonald's declined to report on its cage-free progress, and Walmart hasn't responded.
Even though transitioning to cage-free housing for egg-laying hens is expensive — some industry estimates have placed it at $40 more per bird — producers have incentives to get it done. Studies show many consumers are willing to pay more for cage-free eggs and believe that eggs taste better and hens are happier when given more room. Nielsen figures show sales of cage-free eggs jumped 10% in the 12 months ending Feb. 23. However, other consumers say they're more concerned about the retail cost and safety of eggs than the cage-free issue.
Because higher prices in 2017 reduced demand for cage-free eggs, Cal-Maine Foods, the largest producer and marketer of shell eggs in the U.S., said it was limiting its cage-free production that year. The company recently reported a second-quarter drop in sales of 1.4%, but CEO Dolph Baker noted it was continuing to invest to "prepare for the expected continued increase in demand for specialty eggs, especially cage-free eggs."
Some companies have to make the transition to cage-free production or be in violation of the law. California's Proposition 12, which 61% of voters approved in November, requires all eggs sold in the state to be cage-free by 2022. It also required more humane housing be established for pork and veal production.
But the demands might not stop at cage-free. The Spruce Eats noted that the term "cage-free" stamped on egg cartoons is not the same as "free-range," in which hens are allowed outside, even if the outside space isn't grass but just a small concrete pad. "Cage-free" often means the chickens can wander around inside a hen house, yet still be in overcrowded conditions — which may not be clear to many consumers.
Concerns have been raised about whether cage-free housing systems can be kept clean and free of contamination when compared to battery cages. According to 2016 animal husbandry guidelines from United Egg Producers, bird movement and litter in cage-free systems can mean higher concentrations of bacteria, fungi, internal and external parasites, noxious gases and dust when compared to cage systems.
As they move forward with the transition to cage-free, producers worry that after they make the investment, consumers might decide to go with cheaper eggs from producers that haven't made the change. But since many companies' cage-free commitments have years before they're fully in place, the transition will likely continue.