For the First Time in Decades, Life Is Looking up for America's Egg-Laying Hens

For the first time in decades, life is finally looking up for our nation’s egg-laying chickens, as more than 100 major food companies since last year have announced plans to eliminate eggs from caged chickens from their supply chains in favor of cage-free practices. The rapid speed of this progress has been unprecedented during the past several months, with Walmart, Kroger and dozens more announcing such plans.


For the nearly 300 million chickens who churn out the 79 billion eggs consumed each year in our country, this is a positive, and long-awaited development.

Since World Word II, animal agriculture has become more intensified by moving animals from farms to factories and cramming as many animals as possible inside massive warehouses. The notion that animals were thinking, feeling beings was falling out of favor. A new ideology was taking hold within industrial agriculture—the idea that animals should instead be viewed as units of production.

As pork industry trade journal Hog Farm Management once instructed its readers in the 1970s, “Forget the pig is an animal. Treat him just like a machine in a factory.”

And agribusiness did just that. Each year, while the number of animals raised for food increased, the number of farmers in our country decreased. The concept of more animal cruelty and less animal husbandry took root. 

The animals were forced to bear the brunt of the system. The confinement of breeding pigs and veal calves in cages so small they can’t even turn around became the norm. Our nation’s egg-laying chicken flock suffered a similar fate.

The battery cage became the standard way to keep egg-laying hens within a factory farm. In this barren wire enclosure, the birds live so crammed together they are prevented from spreading their wings. Each chicken is given less space than a sheet of paper on which to eat, sleep, lay eggs and defecate for her entire life.

Imagine forcing eight chickens to live in a space as large as your oven: that’s a battery cage.

Actions by The Humane Society of the United States and fellow animal protection organizations eventually began chipping away at the system. In 2008, with a record number of votes for any citizen initiative in U.S. history, Californians enacted Proposition 2 to phase out battery cages from the state. Other states like Ohio and Michigan soon followed by passing similar laws.

Undercover exposés of egg factory farms garnered national attention, causing consumers to speak out against the cruel practice. Major restaurant chains, food manufacturers, food service companies and grocers took notice.

The HSUS built relationships with leading food companies, and those brands eventually came to the same conclusion—due to increased regulatory pressure and consumer mandate, a resolution on addressing battery cages must be reached.

That solution: switch exclusively to using eggs from birds living in cage-free environments, at a minimum. While cage-free doesn’t mean cruelty-free, it does ensure the hens are able to engage in the natural behaviors denied to them inside cages, like dust bathing, perching, scratching, laying eggs in a nesting area and the ability to walk around.

In the journey toward these better systems, the seminal moment occurred in September 2015 when McDonald’s announced it will eliminate its use of eggs from caged chickens and switch to cage-free eggs. McDonald’s is the largest restaurant chain and one of the most iconic brands in our country, and the announcement was felt like an earthquake within the food industry. 

In less than six months, virtually every top player within the food sector made a similar commitment. Companies from Costco and Safeway to IHOP and Denny’s to Nestle and Kraft and more than 100 major companies have directed their supply chains to ensure only sourcing cage-free eggs within a given timeframe, typically within one to 10 years.

Even the nation’s largest egg producers have stated the certainty of cage-free becoming the new standard production method. As major egg producer Glenn Hickman said, “It’s the future of our industry.”

While voters and consumers made their voices heard, causing such a shift in our country’s treatment of its egg-laying chickens, a new—and to some, surprising—testimonial in support of a cage-free future was announced at the Kellogg shareholder meeting in Battle Creek, Michigan. Kellogg, one of the country’s largest food makers, announced several months ago that it is switching exclusively to using cage-free eggs.

The HSUS, which purchased Kellogg stock, then filed a shareholder resolution allowing stockholders to vote on whether they support Kellogg’s decision to help the hens in its supply chain. In a landslide that would make any elected official jealous, a whopping 96 percent of the vote supported Kellogg’s cage-free decision. This triumph was not only a powerful indicator within Kellogg, it sets the tone that those who have the most vested interest in a food company believe reducing animal cruelty is both the right thing to do and good for business.

American corporations have come to understand that helping animals isn’t charitable work to be done by the softhearted; they have come to embrace this new economy where values matter, including when it comes to how animals are treated.

Fortunately for egg-laying hens and other animals, it seems the new business plan is, at least for many major companies, centered on improving conditions in our nation’s food supply.

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