WASHINGTON, Mar. 1, 2017 - The popularity of eggs from cage-free and organic hens is rising, and America’s laying hens are hard at work meeting the demand. Industry experts at USDA’s annual Outlook Forum, however, said a wholesale industry shift to cage-free and organic egg production won’t happen anytime soon.

Indeed, flocks of Americans are opting for the cage-free and organic labels in food stores and at restaurants, though supermarket prices for those choices often add $1.50 to $2 per dozen. The market for both categories jumped about 20 percent last year and has soared 10-20 percent annually for the past several years, industry reports show. Still, the cage-free volume had just 5.1 percent of U.S. table eggs (those used for food) in 2016, up from 2.6 percent in 2012; organic volume was 4.2 percent, up from 2.2 percent in 2012.

That growth is substantial but isn’t going to fulfill giant volume targets that so many grocery companies, restaurant chains and institutional buyers have set – many pledging to buy only cage-free or organic by 2025 to 2030. Honghei Xin, director of the Egg Industry Center at Iowa State University, pointed to an inventory of public pledges for such conversions, saying that it will take 200 million laying hens to produce the cage-free and organic eggs already targeted. Note that 200 million amounts to 64 percent of the current national flock of table egg layers.

When comparing that high production hurdle with the overall 2 to 3 percentage-point growth through the past four years, Alan Andrews, director of marketing for Cal-Maine Foods, said he “can’t imagine that (100 percent conversion) is going to happen.” Cal-Maine Foods produces nearly a fourth of all U.S. table eggs, including some cage-free and organic.

Andrews referenced a 2009 study by Promar International for the United Egg Producers that estimated the cost and changes the industry would have to make to convert all caged systems to cage-free ones. The study found that complete conversion would cost about $8.4 billion, require 400 percent more land area to operate the alternative egg farms, and would boost the need for land to produce feed for laying hens by nearly 600,000 acres nationally, since hens managed in those systems are more active and need 15-25 percent more feed.

On the other hand, R. Todd Bacon, senior director for McDonald’s U.S. food quality and supply management, said restaurants are “empowered” in the digital age, and American consumers have made “social media the number-one source of information for food,” calling for food production practices such as cage-free and organic eggs. The company, which serves 28 million eggs daily in the U.S. alone, announced in mid-2015 that by 2025 it will be using only cage-free eggs.

McDonald’s joined in a national Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply in 2009 to evaluate alternative egg farming systems. Though cage-free and organic systems pose some problems, he said those systems were chosen and the company is “already working very hard” toward the 100 percent target.

Xin and others pointed to the significant trade-offs in moving from cage systems to cage-free barns, aviaries and free-range farms. Cage-free systems can mean much higher dust and ammonia in the air, more frequent cannibalism, and more ready spread of disease and parasites.