Why the egg industry is scrambling to set hens free
Monday 28 December 2015
Americans eat about 265 eggs per person per year, according to the American Egg Board, and roughly nine in 10 are laid by hens confined in cages with little room to move.
That’s changing. McDonald’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, General Mills and Nestle all said this fall they are gradually switching to cage-free eggs in the US. Consumers are buying more cage-free and organic eggs. Laws in five states, including California, ban caged hens.
But what do terms like “cage-free” and “organic” really mean? Not what you might imagine. According to a new report from the Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute, a nonprofit that promotes organic food policy and farming, eggs labeled “organic” or “cage-free” can be produced in industrial-sized barns by hens that rarely see the light of day. No wonder consumers are confused.
The challenge for large scale egg producers is clear. Their corporate customers and regulators are demanding that they convert to more expensive, cage-free methods. Less than 9% of US hens (there are 277 million of them in all) are now raised without cages, according to United Egg Producers, a trade group. Rose Acre Farms and Rembrandt Foods, the US’s second- and third-largest egg producers, are among those expanding their cage-free operations. “The change is humongous,” Marcus Rust, CEO of Rose Acre, told the AP.
Smaller companies that supply cage-free and organic eggs face challenges, too. As the industry shifts to cage-free, companies like Pete & Gerry’s, Egg Innovations, The Happy Egg Co and Wilcox Farms will need to find new ways to set themselves apart. Some will promote their eggs as “free range” or “pastured”, terms that, unlike “cage-free”, mean that chickens get access to the outdoors.