- Oregon joins other states, including California, Massachusetts and Washington, in mandating that only eggs from cage-free hens may be sold in the state. Starting Jan. 1, 2024, commercial egg farms in Oregon with 3,000 or more hens must be cage-free, and eggs from caged hens cannot legally be bought or sold in grocery stores or restaurants.
- The new law also requires such farms to install perches, nest boxes, scratching areas and dust baths for hens to use, according to Willamette Week. These guidelines for cage-free housing come from the United Egg Producers, the newspaper added.
- Iowa, which is the top commercial shell egg producer in the country, recently went the other direction and required retailers to sell eggs sourced from hens kept in battery cages, The Oregonian reported. Battery cages only allow 67 to 76 square inches per hen, which Vox noted is about the same size as an iPad.
The new Oregon law comes after commitments to cage-free eggs from major corporations, including McDonald's, Walmart and Costco. Critics, however, state that the law could add costs for both Oregon's in and out-of-state commercial shell egg producers and consequently increase consumer prices at the grocery store.
Transitioning to cage-free housing for egg-laying hens can be expensive, with some industry estimates placing it at $40 more per bird. In California, the cost has been estimated at $20 a bird to convert to cage-free operations, with even that amount projected to drive some egg farmers out of business — or lead them to reduce flock sizes.
Nevertheless, producers have incentives to get it done. Studies show many consumers are willing to pay more for cage-free eggs and believe eggs taste better and hens are happier when given more room. The same research found animal welfare concerns are sometimes secondary to taste, quality, nutrition and food safety.
Big food manufacturers and suppliers are getting into cage-free eggs to tap into this consumer sentiment. Nestlé said in 2015 all eggs used in its U.S. products would come from cage-free hens by 2020, and Mondelez, PepsiCo, Sodexo and McDonald's are among the food giants to pledge their commitment to cage-free eggs.
According to the United Egg Producers, most hens are raised in conventional battery cages, but many are being transitioned to cage-free environments. In 2018, about 18% of hens were in cage-free facilities, which was an increase from 12% in 2016 and just 4% in 2010, the industry group said. About 71% of all U.S. hens must be in cage-free operations by 2026 in order to meet expected demand, according to figures from the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service cited by the United Egg Producers.
The term "cage-free," however, may get confused by consumers with "free-range." The Spruce Eats noted the term "free-range" means hens are allowed outside, even if the outside space isn't grass but just a small concrete pad. "Cage-free" often means chickens can wander around inside a hen house, but may still be in overcrowded conditions.
Another issue is that the vast majority of consumers are still opting for the cheapest eggs at the grocery store, so egg producers who do make the switch to cage-free eggs may find they face intense competition from suppliers of cheaper eggs from caged hens.
Since the Oregon law is brand new — Gov. Kate Brown signed it Aug. 12 — it's unknown whether non-cage-free egg producers doing business in the state but not located there will continue to sell shell eggs in Oregon once the requirements kick in on Jan. 1, 2024. They may have to decide if it's worth the additional investment, how much of their total distribution is going to the West Coast and whether diverting their product to states without mandated cage-free laws makes sense.