Cage-Free Eggs Become Standard After Years of Debate

Producers have yielded to animal welfare groups, grocers, and restaurants
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Feb 12, 2022 2:40 PM CST
Cage-Free Eggs Are Becoming the Rule, a Consumer Request
Gregg Fath looks at eggs in a grocery store cooler last week in Des Moines.   (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

With little fuss and even less public attention, US 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 in cage-free housing has soared from 4% in 2010 to 28% in 2020, and that figure is expected to reach about 70% in the next four years. The change marks one of the animal welfare movement's biggest successes after years of battles with the food industry, the AP reports. It's cost producers, who initially resisted calls for more humane treatment of chickens but have since fully embraced the new reality, billions of dollars.

Pushed by voter initiatives in California and other states as well as pressure from fast-food restaurant chains and major grocers, egg producers are freeing chickens from cages and letting them move throughout hen houses. "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, CEO of Rose Acre Farms, the nation's second-largest egg producer. Josh Balk of the Humane Society noted the abruptness of the about-face. 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 a choice.

Starting around 2015, restaurant chains and dozens of grocers and food manufacturers responded to pressure from animal welfare groups by committing to cage-free eggs. Laws followed in at least eight states. Besides building structures with more space, companies had to figure how to feed birds that could move about and how to collect their eggs. More workers and more feed were needed because hens moving around would work up more of an appetite. The cost of the switch to egg producers is hard to estimate, but the cost to consumers is clearer. One study found the price of a dozen eggs in California jumped 72 cents—or 103%—over the average US price. At a Des Moines market, shoppers said they'll pay more if it improves hens' lives. "How would we feel if we were stuck in a cage?" one said. (Pork producers in California have resisted a similar move.)

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