by Jacob Koffler
early all egg-laying hens across America live in a metal cage with floor space roughly the size of an iPad.
The plight of these nearly 270 million chickens, which produced more than 40 billion eggs in 2014, has sparked intense campaigns targeting egg producers—most recently by the animal rights group Humane Society of the United States, which just announced a Times Square video billboard showing the mistreatment of egg-laying hens. Joining the Humane Society is a growing chorus of celebrities—including Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt and Bill Maher—who have specifically targeted Costco, one of several large companies that have pledged to go cage-free but have not given a timeline for when they will complete the transition.
The momentum in support of chicken welfare has been building for decades. In 1999, the European Union responded to activist and consumer pressures by outlawing the cramped 45 to 67 sq. in. cages where most egg-laying hens spend their lives, termed “conventional cages” by the egg lobby (animal rights groups call them “battery cages”). The E.U. replaced them with, at the bare minimum, “enriched cages” that offer the chickens at least 116 sq. in. of space.
Some states in the U.S. have made similar moves—most notably California, which now requires that all eggs sold in the state come from chickens that have enough room to move without bumping into each other, a standard known as California Shell Egg Food Safety Compliant. Congress, too, considered legislation three years ago that would have banned conventional cages nationwide.
Even in areas without regulations, some egg producers in the U.S. are voluntarily moving away from conventional cages, as a way of meeting demand from concerned consumers and a growing number of companies that use eggs in their products and want to be able to market them as “cage-free.” (“Cage-free,” as it is defined by the U.S. government, means that chickens have enough room to move around, though they may still be confined to cage.) And chickens have also received a bump in attention recently amid the country’s ongoing bird flu epidemic, which has killed roughly 50 million hens this year—putting a renewed focus on egg prices and the conditions in which chickens live.
Almost everyone—from animal rights activists to CEOs of major egg companies to executives at food manufacturers like Costco and General Mills—agrees that cage-free is the future of American egg production. But despite this seeming progress, real obstacles remain—which is why no one involved in the egg battle believes the majority of the country’s chickens will be leaving their conventional cages anytime soon.
Meet a Factory-Farmed Chicken
Hens didn’t always live in cages.
“Prior to 1966, my family never had a chicken in a cage,” said Marcus Rust, CEO of Rose Acre Farms, which is now one of the largest family-owned American egg producers, with 17 facilities in six states. Back then, chickens lived in coops with access to large fenced-in farmyards.
But with the rise of the factory farming model and increased demand from industrial food companies, egg farmers began consolidating and growing. Since the 1970s, the number of commercial egg producers has dropped precipitously from about 10,000 to less than 200, according to an egg industry group. As egg farms grew, cages emerged as the safest and most cost-efficient way of mass-producing the cheap eggs that the market demanded.
As of March 2015, the USDA estimated that only 6.4% of eggs produced in the U.S. are cage-free or organic. The rest are produced by hens living in conventional cages.
Experts say chickens in these cages are not any more susceptible to the bird flu that has devastated the country’s chicken population—the disease has been transmitted mostly by wind, which would affect all facilities similarly—but research has shown hens in small cages may be more at risk for salmonella, which can be passed along to consumers.
Beyond the potential dangers to the food supply, most of the activism around cage-free eggs has centered on the welfare of the hens.
Nearly all of a chicken’s natural behavior is restricted inside these cages. The hens cannot flap their wings, nest, roost or bathe in dust—and these are “not just trivial” behaviors for egg-laying hens, said Christine Nicol, professor of animal welfare at the University of Bristol’s School of Veterinary Sciences.
“When you let an animal out of confinement, you see a rebound in behavior,” said Nicol, whose research was used as key evidence when the E.U. banned conventional cages. “If you haven’t eaten for a while, you eat more than usual when you get the chance. The same is true for wing flapping. If [hens] haven’t been able to flap their wings for a while, they do it more when they finally can.”
While Nicol said her research shows hens have a learning ability that is similar to a dog or a cat, she said they don’t inspire the same sympathy from the public, perhaps because they are less social.
“Dogs and cats can form particular social bonds with humans—so a dog really is your best friend,” Nicol said. “Chickens don’t really do that. They’re much more independent than dogs and cats, but that doesn’t mean they’re stupider.”
This lack of connection between humans and chickens enabled egg producers to carve out broad exemptions in animal cruelty laws to permit factory farming, said Paul Shapiro, vice president of farm animal protection at the Humane Society.
“Most states exempt what is called ‘customary agricultural practice,’ which means that because it’s a standard industry practice, it becomes exempt [from animal protection laws] de facto,” Shapiro said. “The egg industry or other animal agriculture industr[ies] define what is criminal for themselves just by how customary a practice is. If the egg industry were treating dogs and cats the way they treat birds, it would be illegal.”
A legislative solution—or not
The closest the U.S. came to banning conventional cages for chickens was in 2012, when Congress considered the Egg Products Inspection Amendment, a bill that would have outlawed the small cages nationwide. The bill was introduced by an unlikely alliance: the Humane Society and the United Egg Producers (UEP), which represents the farmers that own 95% of America’s egg-laying hens.
Chad Gregory, CEO and president of the UEP, said his group and the Humane Society had been “adversaries for many years,” but they came together after farmers began realizing that consumers’ growing opposition to conventional cages was “challenging” for business.
The E.U.’s successful transition to cage-free chicken facilities—a change phased in over 12 years and completed in 2012—reassured many American egg farmers that it was possible to go cage-free and stay in business. For most farmers, the cost of building new, larger facilities for chickens seems prohibitive—”millions and millions” of dollars, Gregory said—but if all egg farmers in the country were forced to make the switch at the same time, none would be at a competitive disadvantage.
The bill had more than 150 sponsors in the House and 20 in the Senate, as well as the support of the largest egg industry organization in the country, but it never made it to the floor for a vote—partly because of opposition from pork and veal farmers. Worried that stricter regulations on the treatment of hens could lead to similar rules for pigs and cows, groups including the National Pork Producers Council, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the American Farm Bureau, the largest general farm organization in the country, vehemently lobbied Congress to reject the bill.
“We saw [the bill] as setting a precedent for allowing the federal government to dictate farm production practices,” said Dave Warner, communications director at the National Pork Producers Council. “It applied to eggs, but if the federal government can dictate the egg farmers, why can’t they do it for pigs or beef cattle or veal calves?”
Gregory, of the egg producers lobby, was disappointed to see the sinking of the cage-free egg bill.
“A sustainable future for egg farmers in the U.S. is no longer clear because of the opposition from our supposed friends in the agriculture business,” Gregory said. “Because we don’t have the federal legislation to help with that orderly transition, we are left with the marketplace deciding it. We were hoping to have this piece of legislation to transition the entire egg industry in a very seamless manner to try to prevent egg farmers from going out of business.”
The UEP and the Humane Society “memorandum of understanding” ended in 2014 and they are not planning to bring up a new federal bill anytime soon.
“We both realized that the opposition was far bigger and better funded,” Gregory said. “And if we decided to introduce something like that again in the foreseeable future, it would be defeated again.”
Without federal legislation, the decision to go cage-free is up to each individual egg farmer, or individual states.
Legislation passed in 2009 in Michigan gave egg producers 10 years to phase out conventional cages. Ohio has banned the new construction of conventional cages, and similar legislation exists in Oregon, Washington, Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
Then there’s the California law that went into effect last Jan. 1, requiring egg-laying hens to have room to lie down, stand up and spread their wings. The law is unusual in that it applies to all eggs sold in the state.
But without a federal standard, many other states are reluctant to ban conventional cages, because it would put them at a comparative disadvantage to their neighbors, who would be able to produce eggs more cheaply.
On the market side, farmers are unlikely to make a costly change unless their customers are demanding it. When it comes to eggs, “customers” means not just the people who buy eggs by the dozen at the grocery store, but also industrial food and restaurant companies that buy them in bulk to put in everything from salads to pancake mix. Individual consumers can vote with their wallets by buying only cage-free eggs, but the bigger change will come when industrial food producers—who account for a third of American egg buyers—do the same.
While some large manufactures—like Costco, Starbucks and Unilever, which produces Hellmann’s Mayo—have committed to going cage-free eventually, they have not set a firm timeline, and overall progress has been slow.
One reason may be that there simply isn’t enough supply. There aren’t enough cage-free egg farmers in the country to meet the demand of big companies like Starbucks, even if those companies decided they wanted to go entirely cage-free overnight, said Rust, of Rose Acre Farms.
And the avian flu—which could surge again in the fall, driving the price of a carton of eggs up to $6, analysts said—certainly hasn’t helped. In July, General Mills announced that it is “working toward” being 100% cage-free for its U.S. operations, but did not provide a date by which that would happen, noting that the flu crisis was “deeply disruptive” to their plans. General Mills cited consumer demand, not animal welfare, as the primary driver behind its decision to go cage-free.
“We try to do everything with a consumer-first lens here at General Mills,” said Steve Peterson, the director of sourcing and sustainability at General Mills. “Our consumers are more and more wanting to know the origin of their food and how their food was cared for before it’s consumed by them.”
Meanwhile, individual consumers who buy only cage-free eggs are driving some incremental change—not just in small farms but among some of the country’s biggest egg producers.
Rust, the egg farmer, saw enough consumer demand for cage-free eggs on the retail side that he recently announced that every new facility his company builds will be cage-free. But he has not seen a similar shift in demand from industrial food producers.
“There’re a lot of industrial manufacturers that only care about the absolute cheapest price,” Rust said.
It’s a vicious cycle: without enough cage-free producers or a law banning conventional cages, industrial users won’t switch. Without enough industrial users demanding cage-free, producers won’t make efforts to overhaul their production systems. Instead, they’ll produce some cage-free eggs, but only targeted toward a niche market.
The legislative efforts on behalf of egg-laying hens—both in the U.S. and the E.U.—have been based around an ambiguous definition of “cage-free.” The USDA defines it as hens being able “to freely roam a building, room, or enclosed area.” A similar definition exists in the E.U., meaning that most egg producers there simply built bigger cages for their hens after the rules changed.
While these larger, “enriched cages” may not be an animal rights activist’s dream, Nicol, the researcher, sees them as “a good halfway house” and Gregory, from the U.S. egg industry group, believes they are the best possible system.
But animal rights activists would prefer that all hens be raised free-range, meaning they have unlimited access to the outdoors. Researchers believe well-run free-range systems give hens the highest quality of life, though the systems also raise new concerns, like an increased risk from predators and disease.
Whatever the ultimate goal, whether cage-free or free-range, groups on all sides of the debate agree that any changes in the U.S. egg industry will have to be driven by the market.
“At the end of the day, cage-free is the choice of the customer,” Gregory said.
The question now is how much Americans care.