by Marc Gunther
Governments, activists and big brands like McDonald’s and Nestle are putting increased pressure on egg producers to raise their hens more sustainably
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.
Consumers, meantime, may need to look beyond labels. The Cornucopia Institute report includes a scorecard ranking 136 name-brand and private label egg producers. Shoppers concerned about animal welfare may want to look for certifications from independent nonprofits like Animal Welfare Approved and Certified Humane.
No more jailbirds
Many of these changes have been driven by animal welfare groups like the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). They won an epic battle in 2008 when California voters passed Proposition 2, a ballot measure that, among other things, required that all egg-laying hens raised in the state by 2015 be able to turn around and extend their wings. That meant abolishing conventional cages, which give each hen just 80 square inches of space in which to move, roughly the footprint of a laptop computer. Later, California lawmakers required that all shell eggs sold in the state be produced in compliance with Proposition 2.
“It was at that point that the egg industry realized that the status quo was not sustainable,” says Josh Balk, HSUS’s director of food policy. Since then, four states – Michigan, Ohio, Oregon and Washington – have enacted laws banning or restricting the use of wire cages. A sweeping animal welfare law is headed for the ballot next year in Massachusetts.
HSUS also has helped persuade more than 100 companies, including the US’s three biggest food service firms, Aramark, Sodexo and Compass Group, to phase out caged eggs. The McDonald’s promise in September to switch to cage-free eggs in North America over the next decade has been deemed a turning point by many, mostly because the company and its franchisees buy more than 2.1bn eggs a year.
The egg industry has fought the legislative mandates, arguing that banning cages will cost producers and consumers more, without improving animal welfare. But Chad Gregory, president of United Egg Producers, acknowledges that conventional cages are on the way out, for better or worse.
“Choices are being taken away from consumers by animal rights groups like the Humane Society of the United States,” Gregory says. “You are increasing the cost of a high quality protein significantly, sometimes doubling or tripling it.”
He’s not far off. On a recent visit to a Giant supermarket in suburban Washington DC, Pete & Gerry’s organic free range eggs were selling for $5.79 a dozen, Nature’s Promise Naturals, a store brand, large cage-free eggs were selling for $3.49 a dozen, and a dozen conventional Giant eggs were priced at $2.99.
Some consumers willingly pay higher prices. Pete & Gerry’s, for example, has grown by 20% or more a year since converting to organic and cage-free about 15 years ago. “We rose out of the ashes of the conventional egg business,” says Jesse LaFlamme, the company’s co-owner and CEO, who is Gerry’s son. The company has expanded from a single New Hampshire farm into a network of about 100 family farms in the northeast and mid-Atlantic states to meet growing demand.
Not all eggs are created equal
Terms like “organic” and “cage-free”, however, don’t mean that hens spend their days bathed in sunshine and pecking at grass in a farmyard. “Cage-free” means only that hens are not kept in cages; they can still spend all their lives indoors. The organic label requires that farmers need to use organic feed and create access to the outdoors, but big farms can comply by building small porches around hen houses with as many as 150,000 to 200,000 birds.
The Cornucopia Institute is especially critical of large farms that use the organic label, but give birds extremely limited access to the outdoors, citing such brands as Chino Valley Ranchers, Eggland’s Best, Horizon Organic and Land ‘O Lakes. The researchers took aerial photographs of large organic eggs farms and found few, if any, hens outside.
That violates the spirit of the organic standard, says Mark Kastel, Cornucopia’s co-founder. Factory farmers who use the organic label are “misrepresenting themselves to consumers and injuring ethical farmers”, Kastel says. “They are inconsistent with what consumers expect in terms of the humane treatment of animals, environmental standards and support for family farmers.” TheCornucopia scorecard points consumers to smaller, family-owned farms that allow hens to spend all of their time on pasture; about 35 smaller firms earn the top “Five Egg” ranking.
Ranked in the middle are mid-sized producers like Pete & Gerry’s, Wilcox Farms and Egg Innovations. They face a difficult challenge – explaining to consumers that their practices are superior to those of big organic farms and better than cage-free.
Pete & Gerry’s relies in part on third-party verification. Its eggs are Certified Humane by an independent nonprofit and it was the first farm business in the US to become a certified B Corporation, according to LaFlamme.
“We have our work cut out for us in a category that’s very confusing,” LaFlamme said. “We are, to a degree, hanging our hat on the differentiation between cage-free and free range. But what we’re really counting on is our brand.”