Just a little over a year ago, McDonald’s made a decision that changed the egg industry forever: the company announced that it would be phasing out eggs from battery-cage raised hens and exclusively using cage-free eggs by 2025. What followed was a frenzy of other restaurants and egg sellers following suit, from Walmart to Denny’s to Costco, leading to a de facto end of battery cages in America.
Many who have toiled for humane animal treatment are thrilled by this move toward cage-free eggs. Others feel that we haven’t yet gone far enough, and that we're declaring victory too soon. To get to the bottom of this debate, we spoke with experts in the industry to see if cage-free eggs are good news or all cracked up.
What Is Cage-Free?
Cage-free eggs are produced in housing systems where hens are kept in an open barn complete with nest boxes. This is distinct from both the traditional battery cage system, where hens are afforded an average of 67 square inches of cage space – about the size of an iPad – as well as from the enriched cage system, wherein hens are kept in slightly larger cages and sometimes have access to a nesting area as well as perches.
“I don't know that anybody would argue that true cage production is somewhat humane,” says Mark Kastel, co-founder of The Cornucopia Institute, a farm policy research group. “It's generally accepted that by confining them in that manner and by preventing them from exhibiting some of their natural behaviors, it creates a lot of stress and many times, they take that out on their flock mates and injure or kill them.”
According to Josh Balk, senior food policy director of farm animal protection for the Humane Society, abolishing cages for egg-laying hens is “likely the most dramatic positive development for farm animals in U.S. history.”
Animals that were once confined to minuscule caged spaces can now engage in such natural behaviors as walking, perching, and dust bathing, things that Balk notes may seem small to our human eyes, but that to hens, are absolutely vital.
“The level of frustration these chickens have because they don't have an area to perch isn't something we can grasp as humans, but for chickens it's the world to them, because that's how they sleep,” he says. “The fact that they can do that in every single cage-free facility in the United States is massive.”
Hens’ newfound ability to nest in a designated area is also a huge victory, according to Balk, who says that, “Even in battery cage facilities, they still have that instinct to find some kind of secluded facility to lay, so in a caged facility they try to literally bury themselves underneath their cage-mates to try to find some seclusion when they're laying an egg.”
In other words, the torturous conditions to which hens have been forced to submit for years are being put to an end. And that’s not all, according to Priscilla Ma, U.S. Executive Director, World Animal Protection.
“Being able to express species-specific natural behavior likely means they experience less stress than caged hens, and that they are able to have positive experiences,” she explains. “Good animal welfare isn’t just about the absence of negative experiences. It’s also about providing animals with the opportunity to have positive experiences.”
But perhaps the most important part of this victory is that it didn’t come from a federal or even a state level – it came from the consumers.
“The movement has come from egg buyers, knowing that they can't sell cages to consumers,” says Balk. “ The consumers have raised their voice, and now the major companies have said, OK, this type of cruel treatment is enough.”
McDonald’s decision to source its two billion eggs a year in North America from cage-free sources will transition a whopping seven million egg-laying hens from the battery cage system to the cage-free system, and what's more, it has had an enormous ripple effect on the industry as a whole.
"Prior to the McDonald's announcement last September, most companies were phasing in cage-free eggs, but without a timeline to get to 100 percent," says Balk. "McDonald's announcement allowed companies to realize that these steps were no longer enough."
What Remains to Be Done?
The widespread move toward cage-free eggs, of course, is just the first step. There is still a great deal of work to be done when it comes to humane treatment for egg-laying hens.
One major change that would further solidify the decisions made by individual companies would be continued policy change, such as the legislation that California has already passed.
“Policy can surely play a significant role, as evidenced by the adoption of Proposition 2 in California,” says Ma. “Not only is California one of the top-ten egg producing states itself, it’s also been reported that California imports an additional 20 million eggs per day, meaning that millions of hens in other states can also now spread their wings with more room to move.”
Massachusetts is seeking to pass a similar ballot measure in November, which would not only prohibit the sale and production of cage-raised eggs, but also cage-produced veal and pork.
“We hope this progress at a state level will spur the development of similar initiatives around the country,” says Ma.
Indeed, this legislation appears to have spurred the same sort of chain reaction as Vermont’s GMO labeling law did; anyone wishing to sell their eggs in California or – soon – in Massachusetts will need to abide by cage-free regulations, meaning that they will either need to have two different production schemes or convert the entirety of their production to cage-free eggs.
Aside from legislation, however, more steps need to be taken if eggs are to be truly humane in America.
“Unfortunately, cage-free does not mean cruelty-free, and there is still much work to be done,” says Sarah Van Alt of Mercy for Animals. “Instead of being confined to wire cages, hens at ‘cage-free’ facilities are often crowded by the thousands into dark sheds, denied access to the outdoors like their battery-caged counterparts, and forced to endure painful mutilations, such as having the tips of their sensitive beaks seared off with a hot blade and no anesthesia.”
Much like caged hens, these cage-free hens are only kept alive for a year or two, until their egg production begins to dwindle, before being euthanized, along with male chicks.
Kastel notes that the widespread cage-free label could even become a step backward if consumers do not choose to stay informed about what this label truly means.
“It delays any subsequent addressing of what many of these livestock factories are doing,” says Kastel. “It was a bit naive to say, let's just get rid of the cages and then we'll visualize that these birds are out running around,” he says.
The truth is that many cage-free farms continue to use similar layouts as caged facilities, minus the cage itself.
“The state-of-the-art technology that ‘factory farms’ are using now pack the birds, as the cage system do, wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling, on multiple levels,” notes Kastel. “Some are referred to as glorified cages because they can effectively be closed for all or part of the day.”
So... What's the Verdict on Cage-Free Eggs?
There’s no doubt that moving to cage-free eggs is an enormous step for animal welfare. We have overcome one of the most inhumane practices in American animal husbandry, and we’ve done it from the ground up.
“Right now the bare minimum standards in the United States are barren cages where chickens can't move,” says Balk. “It's cruel, it's inhumane, it should be criminalized. Moving this bar to cage-free as the minimum standard raises the bar for all of the levels of treatment of egg-laying hens.”
But to congratulate ourselves and go home now would be misguided. We need to continue to demand more from our egg industry, and that starts in the supermarket.
Looking at egg carton labels is a great place to start: while cage-free is a good start, neither cage-free nor organic prove to be the best options when it comes to eggs.
“It’s sad to say, but there's two organic labels,” says Kastel. “It's right in the federal law, organic allows animals to exhibit their instinctual behaviors. The USDA is not enforcing the law, and so we have some ‘organic’ farms that have 200,000 birds in a building.”
The Cornucopia Institute has published an egg scorecard, helping consumers to choose the best, most humane producers for their eggs, many of whom have opted for other labels to show their commitment to humane treatment.
Andrew and Krista Abrahams from Long Dream Farm have chosen Animal Welfare Approved, one of the top labels you can shop for. According to the Abrahams, the certifier not only backs up its standards with the best science available, it is also open to change as science evolves.
“Cage free doesn't go nearly far enough,” the Abrahams say. ‘Chickens should live outside with as much space as possible, doing their chicken thing. It is economically viable to produce eggs in this fashion and frankly we don't think there should be a choice.”
Betsy Babcock of Handsome Brook Farm, meanwhile, has chosen American Humane as a certifier, which requires 108.9 square feet of pasture space per hen – the most space dictated in the industry – and 1.2 square feet of indoor space per hen, whereas cage-free only requires 1 foot.
“Handsome Brook Farm pasture-raised organic hens can spend most of their days roaming freely from a barn to the outdoors from morning until dusk, with the ability to forage, dust-bathe, socialize, and roam…to act like chickens.”
[Note (October 4, 2016): At the end of August, Handsome Brook Farm was sued by the Organic Consumers Association, after allegations that they sourced eggs from supplier farms and from the open market that do not comply with pasture-raised standards. Handsome Brook Farm is also currently under investigation by the Cornucopia Institute after allegations that the company continued to use Cornucopia's five-egg rating on packages, even after it was lowered to a four-egg rating.]
Of course, it seems unlikely that federal or even state governments would require these standards across egg production any time soon, so it’s up to the consumer to make the most educated choices.
“The final arbitrator is the consumer -- they get the final word on this,” says Kastel.
So feel free to celebrate the widespread arrival of cage-free eggs -- it's an enormous victory for humane treatment of egg-laying hens. But when you're in the grocery, vote with your dollar, and opt for something above this new bare minimum standard.
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Egg-laying hen image via Shutterstock