WASHINGTON, Jan. 20, 2016 - Now that some of the biggest grocery chains, food processing firms and fast food restaurants have jumped on the cage-free egg bandwagon, what’s to come of the traditional “caged” egg industry in the United States?
Well, in short, cages aren’t going anywhere fast. Jason Karwal with USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) told Agri-Pulse conventional cage-free eggs accounted for 4.5 percent of U.S. egg production as of September 2015, up from 2.8 percent the year before, and 1.6 percent in 2007.
Add in organic eggs, which must be cage-free to be certified, and only 8.6 percent of all eggs produced in the U.S. in 2015 were cage-free. Say demand increases as much as it has in the last year – 1.7 percent – and there will still be a lot of laying hens in cages for years to come.
But that doesn’t change the fact that there has been a remarkable shift in consumer demand that has prompted pause within the egg industry. Are cage-free eggs the way of the future? And if they are, can egg producers meet cage-free demand?
Ask Josh Balk, senior food policy director for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), and he’ll tell you egg suppliers “see the writing the wall.” To American consumers, “cage-free has become the new bar” for humane treatment of laying hens, and the entire egg supply chain understands that, he said.
That’s why in the latter part of 2015, a steady stream of companies pledged to source only cage-free eggs by certain deadlines. Their transitions to cage-free have been “going very smooth,” Balk said, in large part because the companies worked with their egg suppliers to develop transition timelines with policy “phase-ins” that were feasible for all parties.
The companies that have made the pledge – McDonald’s, Costco, Wal-Mart and more than 30 others – “know that their suppliers are working with them, not against them,” he said, to meet five-year or 10-year deadlines.
Denny’s just announced Thursday it would go 100 percent cage free – the first, but probably not the last restaurant in the family dining sector to switch. Mondelez International, a global snacking powerhouse, announced Friday, and ConAgra Foods, the maker of Egg Beaters, said Monday it plans to be all cage-free by 2025. Even some of the top egg producers in the country – including Rose Acre Farms, Rembrandt Foods and Michael Foods – have goals to go entirely cage-free, and the biggest producer, Cal-Maine Foods, is taking steps in that direction.
Ken Klippen, president of the National Association of Egg Farmers, told Agri-Pulse that “by and large, producers will be able to meet demand” for cage-free eggs once these companies’ deadlines are up, but it’ll cost producers and consumers.
Cage facilities are built like a high-rise building – in every “unit,” or cage, six birds live their entire lives, each having about 67 square inches of space. A cage-free facility of the same square footage can house only a fraction of the birds a cage facility can – Klippen estimated one-sixth the number – and they cost about $10 more per chicken to build.
The biggest egg farmers can pay $30 per chicken to make the switch, and they do so because their consumers demand it, Klippen said. But many of the small or contract egg producers he represents, can’t afford the transition.
Consumers, too, will likely notice their cage-free eggs are around double the price of conventional eggs. Last week for instance, a dozen large, white cage-free eggs went for, on average nationally, $3.77, while a Grade A dozen of white, large eggs went for $1.42, according to AMS’s shell egg national summary.
And then there’s the question of whether going cage-less is any better for the chickens. HSUS says that cage-free colonies are more humane for the birds – it gives them more space to spread their wings and do the things that chickens do, like perching and nesting, the group says.
But Klippen argues that the extra room puts the hens at greater risk of injury and death due to another thing that chickens naturally do – peck each other.
Chickens are hierarchical and they peck at each other routinely, regardless of how much room they have to roam. According to a study by the Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply, an industry funded academic research team, cage-free chickens experience three times the mortality rate of caged chickens partly because of pecking, but mostly due to low blood calcium levels and egg yolk peritonitis (leakage of egg yolk into the abdominal cavity).
The eggs laid in a cage-free system aren’t necessarily as safe for human consumption as conventional eggs either. In cage-less systems, hens sometimes lay their eggs on the ground – the same place they defecate – or in nesting boxes, where manure also ends up.
Several USDA studies have found eggshell bacteria levels on cage-free eggs were significantly higher than eggs laid in conventional, slatted cages. However, once the eggs were washed with a commercial grade solution, as is the industry standard, no significant difference in E. coli or coliform levels were found.
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