Almost All U.S. Eggs Will Soon Be Cage-Free, Thanks to Public Pressure on Farms

DES MOINES, Iowa — Without much fuss and even less public attention, the nation’s egg producers are in the midst of a multibillion-dollar shift to cage-free eggs that is dramatically changing the lives of millions of hens in response to new laws and demands from restaurant chains.

The percentage of hens living in cage-free homes has increased from 4% to 28% over a decade. This figure will likely increase to 70% within the next four years.

The change marks one of the animal welfare movement’s biggest successes after years of battles with the food industry. Although producers initially refused calls for better treatment of chickens, they have accepted this new reality. California’s voter initiative and pressure from big grocers and fast food chains have pushed egg producers to let chickens out of their cages so they can move about the hen house.
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“What we producers failed to realize early on was that the people funding all the animal rights activist groups, they were our customers. And at the end of the day, we have to listen to our customers,” said Marcus Rust, the CEO of Indiana-based Rose Acre Farms, the nation’s second-largest egg producer.

Josh Balk of the Humane Society of the United States noted the abruptness of the change of heart. This is “an entire industry that at one point fought tooth and nail not to make any changes,” he said.

To a great extent, the industry concluded it didn’t have another choice.

Beginning in about 2015, McDonald’s, Burger King and other national restaurant chains as well as dozens of grocers and food manufacturers responded to pressure from animal welfare groups by announcing their commitment to cage-free eggs. That was followed by laws requiring cage-free housing in California and similar rules in at least seven other states — Colorado, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Washington.

McDonald’s, which buys about 2 billion eggs annually, said it gradually shifted to cage-free after concluding it was desired by customers. Many companies widely promoted their move to cage-free as good for their brand’s image.

Animal welfare organizations, including the Humane Society had previously organized shareholder campaigns and conducted undercover investigation of chicken farms. They also filed federal complaints. Gallup’s 2015 poll found nearly three-quarters of Americans believe animals should be protected from abuse and exploitation.

Animal rights groups made the right to animals moving a priority of their campaigns, but results have not been good. California law requires more space to breed pigs, and there was a delay in implementation by a judge.

J. T. Dean is the president of Versova in Iowa, a major egg producer. Egg companies house about 325 million laying hens, so shifting many out of cages where they couldn’t move and into spaces where they could walk and roost was an expensive proposition, Dean said.

Companies had to find ways to provide food for birds and collect eggs. Due to hens’ increased appetite, it was necessary for more people and more feed.

Dean stated that the secret to success was to secure long-term contracts for egg buyers at a premium price.

“When you start talking about needing billions of dollars, you have to try every avenue you can,” Dean said.

It is difficult to determine the exact cost of switching egg producers, partly because buildings and equipment are updated periodically. It is easier to see the cost for people shopping at grocery stores.

Jayson Lusk, who heads the Agricultural Economics Department at Purdue University, found that after a mandatory shift on Jan. 1 to cage-free in California, the price of a dozen eggs in the state jumped by 72 cents — or 103% — over the average U.S. price, although the gap could shrink as the market adapts.

At Des Moines’ Gateway Market, which specializes in organic and specialty food, shoppers said they think it’s worth paying more for eggs if it improves lives for hens.

“I feel as though I want the chicken to be happy,” said Mary Skinner, of Des Moines. “How would we feel if we were stuck in a cage?”

Gregg Fath, a Des Moines resident who enjoys eating three eggs for breakfast, said he thinks “people are learning to be more aware.”

The leaders of egg producers said they expect the demand to continue for lower-priced eggs from caged chickens over the coming years. But Balk, the Humane Society, said that it would become less than 1% of all sales in the near future.

Balk mentions that hundreds of restaurants, national retailers and grocers have adopted cage-free regulations or will in the near future.

“This is the future of every state in America,” he said.


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