Big win for animal welfare as US egg farmers go cage-free

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Without much ado and even less public attention, the nation’s egg farmers are in the midst of a multi-billion 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.

In a decade, the percentage of hens in non-cage keeping has increased from 4% in 2010 to 28% in 2020, and this figure is expected to more than double to around 70% over the next four years.

The change marks one of the biggest successes for the animal protection movement after years of battles with the food industry. The transition has cost producers billions of dollars who initially resisted calls for more humane treatment of chickens but have since fully embraced the new reality. Driven by voter initiatives in California and other states as well as pressure from fast food chains and large grocery storesegg farmers release the chickens from the cages and let them roam the coops.

“What we producers didn’t realize early on was that the people funding all the animal rights groups were our customers. And ultimately, we have to listen to our customers,” he said. said Marcus Rust, CEO of Indiana-based Rose Acre Farms, is the nation’s second-largest egg producer.

To a large extent, the industry concluded that it had no other choice.

Pressure from fast food giants and grocers

Beginning around 2015, McDonald’s, Burger King and other national restaurant chains as well as dozens of grocers and food manufacturers responded to pressure from animal welfare groups by announcing their commitment to egg-free cage. This was followed by laws requiring cage-free housing in California and similar rules in at least seven other states – Colorado, Massachusetts, MichiganNevada, Oregon, Utah and Washington.

McDonald’s, which buys around 2 billion eggs a year, said it had gradually moved to cage-free farming after concluding it was desired by customers. Many companies have widely promoted their move to cage-free farming as good for their brand image.

Previously, animal welfare groups, particularly the Humane Society, had organized shareholder campaigns, conducted secret investigations into chicken farms and filed federal complaints. A 2015 Gallup poll found nearly two-thirds of Americans believe animals deserve protection from harm and exploitation.


Milk consumption decreases

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Animal rights groups have made the freedom of movement of animals a priority in their campaigns, but the results have been mixed. The hog industry is fighting to block California’s initiative that called for more space for raising hogs and beef calves, and a state judge recently ruled delay in the implementation of the new rules.

The egg industry also initially sought national standards that would allow cages but eventually relented, said JT Dean, president of Iowa-based Versova, a major egg producer. Egg companies house about 325 million laying hens, so moving lots of cages where they couldn’t move and into spaces where they could walk and roost was an expensive proposition, Dean said.

In addition to building structures with more space, companies had to figure out how to feed birds that could roam and how to collect their eggs. More workers and more food were also needed because the hens that moved around would have more appetites.

Guaranteed buyers despite higher price

The key, Dean said, was getting long-term commitments for guaranteed buyers of eggs at a higher price.

“When you start talking about needing billions of dollars, you have to try every possible avenue,” Dean said.

The exact cost of changing Egg Farmers is difficult to estimate, in part because some building and equipment upgrades are done periodically anyway. The cost to people in grocery stores is clearer.

Jayson Lusk, who heads Purdue University’s agricultural economics department, found that after a Jan. 1 mandatory switch to cage-free farming in California, the price of a dozen eggs in the state jumped 72 cents – or 103% – from the average. US price, although the gap may narrow as the market adjusts.

At Des Moines’ Gateway Market, which specializes in organic and specialty foods, shoppers said they think it’s worth paying more for eggs if it makes life better for the hens.

“I feel like I want the chicken to be happy,” said Mary Skinner of Des Moines. “How would we feel if we were stuck in a cage? »

Gregg Fath, a Des Moines resident who likes to eat three eggs for breakfast, said he thinks “people are learning to be more aware.”

In coming years, egg company executives said they believed demand for cheaper eggs from caged hens would account for around 25% or more of the market, but Balk from the Humane Society said that ‘he expects it to become a tiny percentage of overall sales.

Balk notes that hundreds of national retailers, restaurants, grocers and food manufacturers have implemented cage-free requirements or plan to do so within a few years.

“It’s the future of every American state,” he said.

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