Animal Rights

Corporate America Is Becoming More Humane Toward Egg-Laying Chickens: 2015 Was a Major Turnaround

The food industry is finally listening to consumers who reject the concept of caging an animal for its entire lifetime.

Photo Credit: Daniel Reiner/Shutterstock

For the hundreds of millions of chickens raised in America for their eggs, 2015 has been a turning point. A slew of leading food brands have made commitments to go cage-free, including Nestlé, McDonald’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, Panera Bread, Jack in the Box, Einstein Noah Restaurant Group, Peet’s Coffee, Caribou Coffee and Yum Brands, which operates three of the world’s most recognized fast-food brands: Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut. Flowers Foods, one of the country’s largest baked goods companies; Rembrandt Foods, the nation’s third largest egg producer; and Carnival Corporation, the world's largest cruise ship operator, have also committed to a cage-free future.

For some more perspective on this change, the American Egg Board, an industry group, counts approximately 63 egg-producing companies with 1 million-plus hens representing approximately 86 percent of total production. Seventeen companies have more than 5 million hens. There are approximately 186 egg-producing companies with flocks of at least 75,000 hens. Combined, these companies account for about 99 percent of all the hens in the nation.

Of these flocks, only around 8.6 percent — 23.6 million hens — are cage-free, up from around just 3 percent in 2008. That leaves the vast majority of egg-laying hens in the United States today confined in battery cages, a form of extreme confinement that allows each bird a mere 67 square inches of cage space. That’s less space than a single sheet of letter-sized paper — and that’s where she spends her entire life, in a space so small she is unable to even spread her wings. Caged laying hens are among the most extremely confined animals in all of agribusiness.

Nine out every 10 eggs you eat is produced by one of these long-suffering hens. Beyond being robbed of the ability to spread her wings, a battery caged hen also suffers by being denied a number of natural behaviors, such as nesting, perching and dustbathing — all important aspects of a normal, healthy life for a hen. Many scientists and animal behaviorists have come out against the cruelty inherent in battery cages.

“The worst torture to which a battery hen is exposed is the inability to retire somewhere for the laying act,” said Nobel Prize winner Konrad Lorenz, an Austrian zoologist, ethologist and ornithologist. “For the person who knows something about animals it is truly heart-rending to watch how a chicken tries again and again to crawl beneath her fellow cagemates to search there in vain for cover."

It's not just bad for the animals. In addition to the unrelenting misery 300 million hens experience in battery cages across the nation, scientific research has found that this type of extreme, unnatural confinement is also a threat to food safety.

Through the persistent work of animal welfare advocacy groups like the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), the public has become more aware of the suffering of hens who produce the eggs we eat, and with that awareness, opposition to battery cages has steadily grown. As a result, many egg producers have switched to cage-free systems, which generally provide hens with a better — though still far from ideal — quality of life. Cage-free hens can engage in a number of natural, healthy behaviors their battery-caged sisters cannot, such as walking, spreading their wings and laying their eggs in nests. 

While cage-free is a great improvement, there is still a long way to go in terms of achieving true animal welfare: Most cage-free hens live in massive flocks of up to thousands of hens, none of whom ever go outside, breathe fresh air or feel the warmth of the sun. But the movement toward cage-free is significant and may pave the way for more awareness and action regarding animal welfare in agribusiness.

I had a chance to ask Josh Balk, senior director of food policy at HSUS, about the numerous cage-free victories in 2015 and the challenges HSUS and all animal advocates face in 2016 in the fight to achieve a cage-free future for all of America’s laying hens.

Reynard Loki: There have been numerous major announcements over the past year by companies committing to a cage-free future. Has 2015 marked a turning point in the long campaign to end the use of battery cages?

Josh Balk: History will look at 2015 as the tipping point of the animal movement’s campaign to eliminate the confinement of egg-laying hens in cages. For more than a decade, there have been positive steps forward by major companies switching some percentage of their egg usage to cage-free, but there’s never been such a cascade of commitments to reach 100% cage-free with precise time frames. It’s become clear to any thoughtful observer that there’s no longer any doubt that the future of egg production is now cage-free.

RL: How varied are the timelines of this year’s commitments and why are they so different? Why does it take so long to switch to cage-free suppliers?

JB: Some companies, like Taco Bell, have enacted one-year phase-ins to go exclusively cage-free. Others, like McDonald’s, have phase-in timelines that will be completed over 10 years. And many companies’ policies are somewhere between those time frames.

Phase-ins are often needed because it takes time for producers to rip out cages and replace them with cage-free equipment, as well as other infrastructural reasons. This transition is not only better for the birds who are now able to walk, perch, dustbathe, scratch and lay eggs in a nesting area, it also brings back much needed jobs for family farmers and rural communities.

RL: How long has HSUS been campaigning for a cage-free future? To what do you attribute these recent victories?

JB: HSUS has led the way on freeing chickens from cages over the past 10 years. We’ve passed laws in several states banning the construction of new battery cages and eliminating already existing chicken cages. We’ve also formed long-term partnerships with top companies from within the food industry to — in a positive, constructive way — take steps for continual improvement of their animal welfare policies. The long list of companies that have committed to 100% shifts to cage-free with time frames are, in most cases, built off of many other steps these companies have made over the years. 

While virtually all companies will make commitments due to working in constructive, positive ways behind the scenes, I can envision a few that may need more encouragement when they refuse to listen to consumer demand for better treatment of egg-laying chickens.

RL: Looking back several years, when very few people even knew what battery cages were, are you surprised at the current state of cage-free in the United States?

JB: I knew that since consumers simply would never accept the concept of caging animals for their entire lives that the egg industry would eventually move to cage-free. That being said, I never would’ve guessed that so many companies in just a few months period would commit to exclusive cage-free policies and that those who didn’t would become outliers. Frankly, I don’t think anyone could’ve predicted the speed in which these policies were announced.

I think we have a good shot of seeing 75% or more production within 10 years being cage-free, a figure once unthinkable.  

RL: For egg producers, is there a cost implication of switching to cage-free? And if so, is that cost a barrier that may prevent an egg supplier from making the switch?

JB: There’s no cost that prevents major egg suppliers to switch to cage-free. Any one of them would say that as long as there’s a phase-in time to reach 100% cage-free and a committed buyer of the eggs, they can hit any demand.

RL: Paul Sauder, who owns Sauder's Eggs, a family company that has been producing eggs for 60 years, says that demand is driving the switch to cage-free. “I wouldn't take the risk of paying double for these eggs, versus commodity eggs, if I didn't have the demand pushing on the other side,” he said. Is consumer demand the only driving force?

JB: The main driver in shifting the egg industry to cage-free is consumer demand for companies to improve the welfare of animals who are within their supply chain. Egg producers are by and large businesspeople and when their clients are demanding a change, in order to keep the business, they’ll make that change. To give many of them credit, numerous major players in the egg industry have been proactive in seeing that their customers are demanding a cage-free future and have been partners to them in achieving this goal. At the same time, many producers have been proud knowing that the animals in their facilities have a better life and openly talk about enjoying seeing them engage in natural behaviors that were once denied to them.  

RL: Bill French, a farmer in Lisbon, New Hampshire doesn’t believe cage-free eggs will become the norm (even though he has about 300 cage-free hens). “I doubt the majority of consumers will willingly pay premium for cage-free,” he said. What would you tell him?

JB: Good for Bill for not using cages. I think he may be pleasantly be surprised that as of this article, nearly every top restaurant chain, food manufacturer and food service company has made commitments to going to 100% cage-free. When you have everyone from McDonald’s to Taco Bell to Dunkin' Donuts to Nestlé all switching to cage-free, you know it’s becoming the norm in society.

RL: Even considering the current flocks in the U.S. that are cage-free, still 9 out of every 10 eggs eaten by Americans is produced by a hen suffering in a battery cage. Does this correlate to the consumer demand; i.e., would you say that 1 out of 10 consumers demands cage-free eggs?

JB: A large percentage of eggs are used as ingredients in manufactured goods where consumers aren’t even thinking about eggs when they make their purchase. Another large percentage is used in food service where a customer simply orders from the menu without any option of how the hens were treated. On grocery shelves, unlike in the European Union, producers don’t even have to label battery cage eggs “eggs from caged hens.” This means a company could sell a brand called “Reynard’s Happy Chickens” with you holding a hen and all the eggs could be from caged birds. These are all reasons why consumers often hadn’t had the opportunity to make viable choices.

That being said, the fact that their voices are being heard from major companies enacting cage-free policies demonstrates Americans don’t want animals in food production to be confined in tiny spaces.   

RL: According to HSUS, “Cage-free does not necessarily mean cruelty-free, cage-free hens generally have significantly better lives than those confined in battery cages. The ability to lay their eggs in nests, run and spread their wings are tangible benefits that shouldn't be underestimated.”

What does a “cage-free” life really mean? What are the real implications for laying hens in terms of improved welfare? Does a truly cruelty-free egg exist and if so, how can consumers purchase cruelty-free eggs?

JB: “Cage-free” means no cages. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s a vast improvement over confining chickens in tiny cages. Nesting, walking around, perching, wing flapping and dustbathing are all core natural behaviors that are prevented in battery cages though can be done in cage-free. While “cage-free” hens are often prevented from outdoor access, “free range” and more so “pasture raised” are methods that allow hens the ability to enjoy the sun on their back and dirt under their feet. Some consumers choose “cage-free,” others “free range,” a growing number “pasture,” and some choose not to purchase eggs. All are better options than supporting the confinement of chickens in cages.

RL: Does the term cage-free have any legal implications? Is it enforced by the USDA, or can any egg producer simply call their eggs cage-free? What kinds of caveats do you have for consumers who are seeking cage-free eggs and buy eggs labeled “cage-free”?

JB: Cage-free doesn’t have a legal definition but virtually all operators are third-party-audited to ensure compliance to at least minimum standards that don’t allow cages. Consumers should know that cage-free is a vast improvement, while also not being chicken utopia.

RL: The treatment of animals raised for the food supply can have grave implications for public health. The emergence of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), for example, a contagious respiratory disease that infected over 8,000 people, killing nearly 800 worldwide, has been linked to live animal markets. What kinds of public health concerns are connected to the extreme confinement of laying hens?

JB: An abundance of science shows that forcing hens to endure confinement inside cages increases the risk of Salmonella compared to keeping hens in a cage-free environment. In fact, there have been sixteen studies published in the last 10 years comparing caged and cage-free egg operations, and they all found higher rates of Salmonella in the caged facilities. The only two studies ever published comparing risk at the consumer level both tied Salmonella infection to cage egg consumption. A prospective case-control study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that people who recently ate eggs from caged hens had twice the odds of being sickened by Salmonella, and a study in Epidemiology and Infection found nearly 5 times lower odds of Salmonella poisoning in consumers who chose eggs from free-range hens.

RL: Is there any legislation, on the state or federal level, that addresses battery cage confinement?

JB: We passed laws in California [Prop 2] and Michigan that eliminate cages and in Ohio that eliminate the construction of new battery cages. In Massachusetts, we’re waging a measure for the 2016 ballot that would ban battery cages and establish cage-free retail standard for the sale of eggs. Eliminating the cage confinement of hens and other farm animals will occur by both public and private policies.

RL: Even with the recent cage-free announcements, there is still a long way to go. Is a truly cage-free future for America’s laying hens even possible? 

JB: The cage-free future will happen. I guarantee it. There’s no way a company will ever be able to convince its customers that it’s somehow okay to treat animals like machines and immobilize them to the point they can barely move. The only hurdle is time — the longer it takes to get chickens out of cages the more birds will have to suffer this fate. Fortunately, we’re moving fast.

RL: What can concerned consumers do to help move America to a cage-free future?

JB: If an egg carton label doesn’t say “cage-free,” “free range,” “pasture,” or “organic,” know those eggs came from caged chickens. And then write to the headquarters of the grocery store you shop to ask them to stop selling cage eggs.

RL: What challenges do the HSUS and other animal advocacy organizations face as the cage-free movement goes forward? What makes you hopeful?

JB: Our challenge is what Martin Luther King Jr. called “the fierce urgency of now.” The conditions egg-laying hens and other farm animals are faced to endure is so extreme and causes so much suffering that there’s an urgent need for reform. The fact that we’re winning for animals at such a rapid rate gives me hope we’ll see the end of cages faster than anyone could’ve imagined.

[Editor's note: The Cornucopia Institute, a non-profit public interest group that promotes economic justice for the family-scale farming community backing ecologically produced local, organic and authentic food, maintains the “Organic Egg Scorecard” that ranks egg producers according to, among other criteria, how much outdoor space their laying hens have access to.]

Reynard Loki is AlterNet's environment, food and animal rights editor. Follow him on Twitter @reynardloki. Email him at [email protected].

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