The Australian study examined the attitudes of 73 consumers toward caged and free-range hens. Although participants described caged egg production as cruel, researchers found that animal welfare was a less important driver of free-range egg purchases than taste, quality, nutrition and food safety. Many consumers thought that free-range hens were “happier," and that this led to better quality eggs.
“These findings suggest that consumers think about animal welfare in a much broader way than we previously thought, and in particular they believe that better welfare is connected to a better quality product,” said lead author Dr. Heather J. Bray from the School of Humanities and the Food Values Research Group at the University of Adelaide.
For food manufacturers, this study suggests that using cage-free eggs could be a prime opportunity to improve consumers' perception of their products. Indeed, many food companies have already made commitments to change their egg supply. Nestle said in 2015 that 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 other food giants to pledge their commitment to cage-free eggs.
On the retail side, Kroger launched a private label line of cage-free eggs last fall. Together, the commitments made by manufacturers and retailers account for about 70% of U.S. egg demand, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Only about 10% of eggs sold in the U.S. today are cage-free.
The disparity between these figures could cause a problem. Although advocates have hailed these pledges as a victory for improved animal welfare, the chicken industry has warned that raising chickens in a cage-free environment costs more — about $40 per bird. Plus, with the vast majority of consumers still opting for the cheapest eggs at the grocery store, egg producers that do make the switch to cage-free eggs are finding they face intense competition from suppliers of cheaper eggs from caged hens.
In the longer term, food industry pledges are likely to make the move to cage-free eggs profitable for producers. McDonald’s alone accounts for 3% of all eggs consumed in the United States, and it will need to find a reliable supply.
Meanwhile, some brands already are using humane egg production as a point of differentiation — and a mark of quality — such as New York-based condiments maker Sir Kensington’s, recently acquired by Unilever.