The following is a guest post from Ben Williamson, US executive director of Compassion in World Farming.
All families, regardless of income, should be able to make food choices that align with their values. However, millions of low-income families are barred from making more humane purchases through the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).
Over 6.2 million women and their children rely on the federally funded WIC program to meet their dietary needs. The program temporarily supplies income-eligible women with benefits to buy food rich in iron, protein and other essential building blocks for healthy development. However, each state, territory, and tribal WIC agency (89 in total) has its own list of approved foods that can be purchased through the program. One of the items notoriously prohibited for purchase through WIC is cage-free eggs.
The ability to drive positive change through consumer choice is one of the most patriotic forms of expression in our capitalist system. It has proven especially effective in animal welfare. To secure a fairer food system for families and a kinder system for egg-laying hens, WIC agencies across the U.S. must eliminate these restrictions from their regulations.
Consumer demand for cage-free eggs has soared over recent years due to increased animal welfare concerns. The label “cage-free” ensures minimum welfare standards for egg-laying hens, such as having enough space to walk and fully spread their wings. Conversely, hens in conventional factory farms are crammed into battery cages with space no larger than the size of a sheet of paper. They can also suffer from osteoporosis, feather loss and inadequate medical care as it is difficult for workers to spot sick or injured birds.
This increased demand for cage-free has spurred producers to shift away from caged systems. The proportion of cage-free hens has more than tripled since 2016, up from 10% to 33% of the nation's total laying flock today.
The most recent jump is due in large part to California’s Proposition 12, which set a statewide ban on the production and sale of eggs from hens in caged systems. Initially passed in 2018, the law went into full effect in January 2022, and it has sent shockwaves through the farming sector. The total number of cage-free hens increased by 18% last year alone and is expected to increase further to meet California’s demand, signaling a major change in industrial practice. States such as Michigan, Utah, Colorado, and Oregon have also passed cage-free production laws and more are expected to be introduced in other states over the next few years, further tipping the scales toward a universal cage-free future.
But as middle- and higher-income shoppers feel the rush of satisfaction that comes with supporting animal welfare as they reach for cage-free eggs, lower-income WIC shoppers are largely forced to reach for conventionally produced eggs regardless of their ethical preferences. The good news is that change is afoot, as 24 state agencies (including DC) now permit access to cage-free eggs. WIC agencies are increasingly adding cage-free eggs to their approved foods lists to increase redemption rates, improve participant satisfaction, and serve as a buffer for market changes and point-of-purchase options. The pandemic has also prompted some WIC agencies to approve cage-free eggs due to conventional egg supply shortages.
However, 44% of women and their toddlers are still explicitly barred from purchasing cage-free eggs with their WIC benefits, rendering them unable to participate in this emerging industrial shift and make consumption decisions that align with their values.
The enthusiasm for a cage-free future has even spilled into the retailer landscape, adding further pressure on WIC agencies. Grocers nationwide, including Target, Walmart, Kroger and Publix have made commitments to go 100% cage-free. Given that WIC agencies and recipients depend on these chains, it is necessary for WIC to follow suit.
As conventional egg supply and demand dwindles, WIC agencies will need to ensure their recipients still have access to nutritious and affordable eggs. Lifting the remaining restrictions on cage-free eggs would not only create a more equitable food system, but it has the potential to free up to 2 million more hens from cages.
A just food system should be equitable not only from a health perspective, but also from a values perspective. With cage-free prices continuing to fall as more farmers transition to comply with legislation, the ability to support more humane practices will become increasingly affordable. WIC agencies should get ahead of these changes to make the transition as smooth and fair as possible.