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Cage-free egg farming is on the rise, but is our system ready for the switch?
The game is changing for large-scale chicken farming, NPR reports. Due to increasing consumer demand for cage-free eggs, companies like Aramark, a food supplier for schools and prisons, and Unilever, which is responsible for Hellmann’s Mayonnaise, are turning to smaller producers.
Today, 90 percent of eggs consumed in the U.S. come from caged chickens. Animal Welfare groups have long been protesting this practice, as multiple birds are often crammed into one small unit called a battery cage.
Chickens not kept in cages exhibit more natural behavior, such as roosting and dust bathing, and retain more feathers. Yet a study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture concludes that there is no difference in nutritional content between factory-raised and cage-free eggs.
From the consumer perspective, free-range eggs are more expensive than their caged counterparts, as it costs more for farmers to produce them. More space is needed to house fewer birds, and the chickens themselves are fed a higher-quality feed.
All the same, big name companies are listening to the public’s growing concerns and making promises to go cage-free. The problem is supply. Demand for free-range eggs may be on the rise, but egg suppliers’ hesitance to raise production costs is leaving many companies in the lurch.
What does 'cage-free' really mean, exactly?
The term &ldquocage-free&rdquo has made headlines a lot lately, especially since last fall when McDonald&rsquos pledged to slowly switch to all cage-free eggs. Dozens of other big companies followed, including Taco Bell, Costco and Nestle (but only for its American products, like Toll House cookie dough). Earlier this month, Walmart, the country&rsquos largest retailer, also said it will transition to all cage-free eggs by 2025.
Animal-welfare activists say the announcements are a huge step in the right direction, because it means these large companies will no longer serve or sell eggs from chickens kept in battery cages. McDonald&rsquos buys 2 billion eggs for its U.S. locations annually, so when the company fully implements a switch to cage free by 2025, it will improve the lives of an estimated 8 million animals. Walmart doesn&rsquot disclose how many eggs it sells, but it&rsquos estimated to be in the billions too.
Here in California, battery cages were the issue in Proposition 2, a law that passed in 2008 with 63 percent of the vote. Starting January 2015, all eggs sold in California, by law, must come from chickens raised in what is basically a cage-free environment.
But the term cage-free doesn&rsquot exactly mean the chickens are not in tight spaces. Here&rsquos a look at what it does mean, compared to other animal-welfare standards, including those under Prop. 2.
What is a battery cage?
Battery cages are tightly cramped enclosures that are used by at least 90 percent of egg producers in the United States to increase production and prevent the spread of disease. They also prevent chickens from natural behavior, such as flapping their wings or roosting.
These cages, which usually hold several birds, give as little as 67 square inches per bird, according to the industry standard established by the United Egg Producers. That means hens spend their lives squeezed next to other birds in a space smaller than the size of an iPad or an 8½-by-11-inch sheet of paper.
Chickens raised for their meat aren&rsquot typically kept in battery cages to prevent injury from other chickens, which can decrease their value it&rsquos enough to make you realize why the cages are considered inhumane.
What does cage-free mean?
The short answer is that the term cage-free means the birds were not raised in battery cages. But it does not mean they are not kept in enclosures. And it also doesn&rsquot ensure that the chickens have access to the outdoors. Cage-free birds just have a lot more space &mdash relatively speaking.
According to the industry standard, each cage-free bird must get 1 to 1½ square feet (144 to 216 square inches), depending on the type of system, including large tiered barns. It doesn&rsquot sound like that much more than battery cages, but birds are able to walk, lay their eggs in nests and spread their wings, according to the Humane Society of the United States. Yet cage free is still far from luxurious living conditions, say animal activists.
&ldquoIt is a substantial improvement, but it doesn&rsquot necessarily mean they live in idyllic conditions,&rdquo says Paul Shapiro, vice president of farm animal protection at the Humane Society of the United States. &ldquoCage free does not mean cruelty free.&rdquo
Cage-free eggs, in San Francisco, Calif., on September 25, 2008. Craig Lee/The Chronicle
What are the rules under California&rsquos Prop. 2?
Under Prop. 2, a chicken must be able to spread its wings and stretch its limbs without hitting the cage or another bird. The law does not specify a certain amount of space, but it&rsquos estimated to be around 216 square inches per bird.
What are the rules for organic eggs?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has recently proposed welfare rules surrounding certified organic meat and poultry. The standards for indoor space are the same as for cage free, but each animal also must be allowed 2 square feet per bird outdoors.
In other words, the outdoor space can&rsquot be just an enclosed porch with a concrete floor, which is what many large-scale organic operations have. Under these new guidelines &mdash which are going through the approval process &mdash it would have to be half soil and not under a fixed roof.
Weak Regulations = Worse for Animals
The Trump administration may soon make so-called “humane” slaughter methods even more difficult to monitor.
In September 2018, the administration introduced new regulations that would allow slaughterhouses employees to oversee inspections without being obligated to undergo training. The new regulations would also increase line speeds in order to speed up production. Doing so could not only lead to more safety issues, but also worse treatment for pigs.
A number of meat brands market their meat as “humane.” Whole Foods Market, for example, has built a picturesque narrative around where its meat comes from. The supermarket stores and website shows animals living in grassy fields as part of its 5-Step Animal Welfare Certification program, which it says “encourages and rewards farmers and ranchers to improve their welfare practices.” Its meat is also “Certified Humane” under Global Animal Protection, a nonprofit that seeks to improve farm animal welfare globally.
Massachusetts Cage-Free Farming Referendum Passes
On a night when Western liberals suffered a setback of about 200 years, there was at least one bright spot by way of the Massachusetts cage-free farming referendum. The referendum requires that all pork, veal, and eggs farmed and sold in the state come from livestock that is not confined to ultra-restrictive cages. The measure, which passed with a whopping 78 percent of the vote, is among the most progressive initiatives of its kind. And, depending on whether the county begins to show compassion for absolutely anything at all in the next four years, it could spark a chain of similar referenda in other states as well.
Known as Question 3 on the ballot, the Massachusetts cage-free farming referendum protects animals from cages known as battery cages𠅌ramped quarters that give hens less than a sheet of paper&aposs worth of space to move around𠅊nd mandates that livestock live in reasonable accommodations that provide them with more space to move around. Taking things a step further, the measure also bans the sale of livestock products from farms and other states that are not in compliance with the new Massachusetts law. The Massachusetts cage-free legislation will go into effect in 2022.
This win for animal rights activists marks a big step forward in the cage-free movement, which gained the support of food giants like McDonald&aposs and Sodexo in 2016 as they pledged to go cage-free with their egg supply in coming years. Most organizations are opting instead for enriched cages that provide hens with more room to move and fewer cage-mates. The verdict is still out on whether or not enriched cages𠅊lso known as furnished cages𠅊re that much of an improvement over regular battery cages. But according to a Fortune article on cage-free farming, having completely free-range chickens and hens can actually be detrimental to their health. The Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply conducted research that suggested hens may actually suffer from poorer health and more instances of aggression from their more dominant compatriots. In this context, enriched cages may actually provide a bit of breathing room for livestock that keeps them safer than a completely cageless facility. Plus, this keeps animals from being on the ground, reducing their exposure to parasites and bacteria present in their own droppings.
So even if it feels like we&aposre hopelessly screwed at the moment in the hands of an inexperienced Cheeto of a president-elect, at least there will be more ethically sourced eggs in Massachusetts. Oh, and recreational marijuana.
Egg producers skittish about cage-free investments
Over the past year, many big food companies like Wal-Mart, General Mills and McDonald’s have pledged to source their eggs from cage-free hens in coming years.
That has put a lot of pressure on egg producers to ditch their cages, which means higher costs. New equipment is expensive, and labor and feed costs spike, too.
Despite the wave of companies going cage-free, those premium eggs simply are not selling well. And that’s making producers hesitate to invest in cage-free systems.
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The situation is a reversal from what analysts observed last year following an outbreak of avian flu, which cost producers more than 30 million egg-laying birds. An egg shortage ensued, and prices shot up — so much so that the price difference narrowed between generic eggs and the usually much pricier cage-free ones.
“There were actually times during last year, during the peak price points, that cage-free eggs were actually cheaper at retail than the generic egg was,” said Brian Moscogiuri, an egg market analyst at Urner Barry.
Moscogiuri said as a result, many consumers temporarily traded up to cage-free eggs.
But flocks have rebounded significantly since the bird flu outbreak. And food manufacturers have tweaked their recipes to use fewer eggs or egg substitutes, which lowered demand for eggs.
Now conventional egg prices are down considerably, making cage-free eggs pricey by comparison once again. Moscogiuri said consumers have taken note.
“Now they go into a store and you can buy a couple dozen in some cases for under a buck,” he said. “Are you going to still pay $2-$3 for cage free eggs? The cage-free egg sales are suffering.”
The changes have prompted some producers to delay or even cancel their orders for cage-free equipment from Big Dutchman, a leading provider of cage-free housing.
“If their customers are not taking the cage-free eggs, they simply have to back away from that,” said Terry Pollard, senior vice president of egg systems at Big Dutchman. “Just running a good business is going to tell you to not produce those types of eggs in large numbers, because you’re going to lose money.”
Pollard said the low demand for cage-free eggs means some producers are having to turn to the generic egg market to get rid of their cage-free inventory, selling those premium eggs in generic egg cartons at a steep discount.
The situation makes Pollard and others in the industry question how much consumer demand there really is for cage-free eggs.
On a recent trip to Kowalski’s, a grocery store in St. Paul, Minnesota, shopper Amy Toonen said she only buys organic or cage-free eggs. She said her 4-year-old son goes to a daycare that keeps chickens roaming free in a yard, and she wants to buy eggs from hens raised in a similar fashion.
That means ignoring the price gap between generic and cage-free eggs. “I don’t even look,” she said. “I don’t want to know.”
But shopper Betsy Reveal spurned the $4 cage-free eggs, opting instead for a dozen conventional eggs for about $1.
“I’m much more price-conscious than I am anything else,” she said.
How many other consumers also prefer the cheaper option? That’s a big question for egg producers, even as many big food companies aim to go all in on cage-free.
Eating Out? There's a Good Chance Your Eggs Aren't Cage-Free
A recent survey shows that many restaurants have yet to buy cage-free eggs.
Back in 2016, we were excited to report that Sysco Corporation, the United States&apos largest food distributor, had announced a long-term plan to adopt cage-free eggs in all of their products and distribution chains. Many home cooks were eager to enjoy eggs that weren&apost forcibly produced from chickens stuffed into tight cages, and our editors were hopeful that Sysco&aposs bold claim would inspire other restaurants and manufacturers to follow suit.
But a new survey suggests that the food industry has been slow to follow Sysco&aposs lead, including the restaurants that previously said they𠆝 start using cage-free eggs.
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One animal welfare nonprofit group has been monitoring American companies and whether they&aposve been following through on promises of going cage-free, and many declined to reveal if they had made the change, Bloomberg reports. The Compassion in World Farming&aposs annual report, called EggTrack, shows that only 27 leading companies out of 100 surveyed had something positive to share about progress𠅊nd one of the major companies making stride was Hyatt Hotels.
The Waldorf Astoria, Conrad, Canopy by Hilton, and DoubleTree by Hilton have reportedly switched to using cage-free eggs exclusively, the Hilton brand told Bloomberg, despite being listed as a "did not report" company in the nonprofit&aposs report.
Shake Shack leads the fast-casual industry in using cage-free eggs in their productster making their pledge in December, 2015, breakfast eggs served across their 117 U.S. locations have been cage-free, Shake Shake executive Jeffrey Amoscato told Bloomberg.
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But challenges arise even for those who are using cage-free eggs. Individual ingredients, such as Shake Shack&aposs egg white powder for its marshmallow fluff, could still be made with eggs that aren&apost produced outside of cages. Amoscato told Bloomberg that Shake Shack contacted over 100 bakeries to ensure that their supply chain used cage-free eggs exclusively.
According to the report, the companies who haven’t started using cage-free eggs include Kellogg&aposs (which recently suffered a large scale salmonella outbreak linked to Honey Smacks) Mars Inc. and McDonald&aposs, who previously set a deadline of using cage-free eggs in all of its meals by 2025.
Compassion in World Farming, the nonprofit responsible for the survey, told Bloomberg that the companies listed as not using cage-free eggs did not provide information to the organization to prove otherwise. But Katya Simkhovich, the food business manager at the nonprofit, said she hopes that this report will get both companies and their suppliers to start thinking about making the switch.
“There has to be a pacing in the sourcing on the company side so that the producer side can transition,” she said. “It’s not overnight for them, either.”
Why It's Taking Companies So Long To Switch To Cage-Free Eggs
At the world’s largest fast-food chain, ending the use of eggs laid by caged hens will be a 15-year process.
Subway said Monday that it will switch its entire supply over to cage-free eggs by 2025. The announcement makes the sandwich giant the largest restaurant yet to adopt the 10-year deadline, which was thrust into the spotlight after McDonald's made an identical pledge in September.
Subway said five years ago that it would phase out the use of eggs from caged hens, but didn't offer any timeline for when it would make the switch. The new announcement, which will affect the company’s roughly 30,000 locations in the United States and Canada, offers a firm deadline, albeit a generous one.
“Subway customers across Europe are served only eggs from free range hens and in Australia are served eggs from cage free hens,” Elizabeth Stewart, director of corporate social responsibility at Subway, said in a statement. “Major menu changes like this take time, but we will keep our customers updated every step of the way as we work diligently with our suppliers to reach our goals. As more and more chains come on board with their commitment we want customers to remember you have ours.”
Other big food companies have set more aggressive deadlines. Last week, Nestlé, the world’s biggest food producer, pledged to use cage-free farms to supply the 20 million pounds of eggs it uses in items sold in the U.S. in just five years. Starbucks and Panera -- one of Subways’ fiercest rivals in the sandwich space -- have both vowed to go cage-free by 2020.
Smaller chains have adopted even more aggressive targets. Taco Bell promised last month to use only cage-free eggs at its nearly 6,000 North American locations by next year. Bakery chain Au Bon Pain, which has slightly more than 300 outlets worldwide, vowed in 2013 to eliminate eggs from caged hens from its supply chain by 2017.
Subway’s pledged deadline falls in line with other major restaurant chains like TGI Fridays and Jack in the Box, and with food producers like General Mills and Kellogg.
So, why such a long timeline for making the change?
The problem may be that there simply aren’t enough eggs laid by cage-free hens. Just 4.5 percent of the nearly 7.5 billion eggs produced in the U.S. in September came from cage-free hens, according to the industry group United Egg Producers .
“These commitments from players like McDonald’s or Nestlé are really more about signaling to the egg industry that it’s time to retrofit all the barns and switch over production to cage-free eggs,” David Coman-Hidy, executive director at the animal welfare nonprofit The Humane League, told The Huffington Post by phone on Sunday. “That time has come.”
Companies like Nestlé -- which uses eggs in its Lean Cuisine breakfast dishes and Toll House cookie dough -- can switch to cage-free eggs more quickly because they can swap other ingredients for eggs in baking recipes. At McDonald’s or Subway, where eggs are irreplaceable in breakfast sandwiches and flatbreads , converting the supply chain would probably require price hikes on the menu to offset the cost of more expensive eggs. Each year, McDonald's purchases about 2 billion eggs in the U.S. and 120 million in Canada. Subway did not immediately respond to questions about how many eggs it uses.
Hens that lay eggs in squalid battery cages cannot spread their wings or even walk around. But c age-free eggs are not necessarily cruelty-free. Cage-free farms can still keep hens crowded into dark, windowless barns. Common industry practices allow for cage-free birds to have their beaks clipped or be forced through starvation to shed their feathers.
But vague rules around what is required to call something a free-range or pastured egg make cage-free eggs the most humane solution to scale in a big way.
“It’s measurable and easy to confirm without a really strenuous auditing process,” said Coman-Hidy, who worked at Subway when he was 13 and has campaigned for cage-free eggs since college. “A farm either uses battery cages or it doesn’t, there’s no wiggle room.”
Coman-Hidy said the next step for the cage-free movement will be lobbying supermarket chains to eliminate all but cage-free eggs from their shelves.
“People are against cages and overwhelmingly vote to ban them when given a choice,” Coman-Hidy said. “It’s time for supermarkets to reflect that.”
But that change, as with any other in the egg industry, will take time.
“We’re hoping to see change in the coming year or two,” Coman-Hidy said. “In a big way.”
Panera Bread Just Issued a Big Challenge to Other Fast Food Companies
Just months after announcing that it is removing artificial ingredients and antibiotics from its food, Panera Bread moves another step further in its quest to improve its food — the fast food chain will also make commitments to animal welfare.
As part of this new initiative, Panera Bread says that it wants to reduce confinement across its food chain, meaning by the end of 2015, pregnant pigs will be crate-free and cows raised for beef will be 89 percent grass fed and 100 percent free range as well. The company, which uses 120 million eggs in its dishes and baked goods every year, also plans to make all of its egg-laying chickens cage-free by 2020. In addition, all of its chickens and turkeys will be raised without antibiotics by the end of the year.
The chain said it is making this commitment as part of a larger initiative that has been happening for more than a decade. "While there is more work to be done, we are within reach of a menu without antibiotics and unnecessary confinement," said CEO Ron Shaich. "We are committed to transparency — which means sharing where we are and where we plan to go. We encourage other companies to join us by transparently sharing their progress."
McDonald&rsquos Announces Move to Cage-Free Eggs Over Next Decade
McDonald’s has announced that they will move toward selling only cage-free eggs in the United States and Canada, hoping to be completely cage-free by 2025. The decision represents a big switch for the fast food chain, which currently only buys about 13 million cage-free eggs a year, a small percentage of the 2 billion eggs they use annually, according to the Associated Press.
Digging deeper into the numbers makes the proposal even more daunting. According to the New York Times, the United States produces 43.56 billion eggs each year, meaning the 2 billion McDonald’s requires makes up 4 percent of total consumption. And now that the burger giant has announced they plan on serving breakfast all day, those numbers are expected to surge even higher. Meanwhile, less than 10 percent of all hens are currently cage-free. It’s easy to see how instituting the change could take a decade.
But advocates of the new policy believe that having a huge consumer like McDonald’s go cage-free will actually expedite the process across the country. “It&aposs a real watershed moment,” Paul Shapiro, vice president of farm and animal protection for the Humane Society told the AP. “It makes it clearer than ever that cages just do not have a future in the egg industry.”