Egg producers struggle to meet cage-free consumer demand

2016 can be accurately described as the year of the chicken, as many large companies announced timelines to use and sell cage-free eggs. In response to growing demand, some producers are scrambling to make the necessary changes to meet these new expectations.

Albertson’s Companies, which operates well-known brands like Safeway, Shaw’s, Acme and Vons, recently joined dozens of other well-known grocery chains, like Ahold USA, BJ’s Wholesale Club, Costco, Trader Joe’s and others in pushing producers to make more cage-free eggs available to their consumers over the next 15 years.

Other large companies including Dunkin’ Donuts, Wendy’s, Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Quizno’s, Subway,
Starbucks, Nestle, and Mondelez, have also stated their cage-free food production intentions in recent press releases and pledged to work with producers to meet growing customer demands.

Paul Shapiro, Vice President of Animal Protection with the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), notes that when it comes to this industry shift to cage-free, basic supply and demand law is at play.

“If [egg producers] want to sell eggs to most of the big egg buyers, like McDonald’s, they’re gonna have to be cage-free in 5, 10 or 15 years,” Shapiro says. “These are business people – the supply will follow the demand.”

While the growing consumer demand is firmly rooted in a preference for more ethical options, the sad reality is that most end-consumers do not actually understand what they’re asking for, or what their choices mean for the lives of chickens. Unfortunately, when many consumers picture a “cage-free” chicken farm, what they imagine is closer to a free-range or a pasture-raised chicken farm. While the average chicken must be allotted a minimum of 0.5 sq. ft. to live in, for a farm to label its product “cage free”, they only have to supply their chickens with 1 sq. ft. of living space. To compare, free range and pasture raised chickens are granted 21 sq. ft. and 108 sq. ft., respectively.

“If [egg producers] want to sell eggs to most of the big egg buyers, like McDonald’s, they’re gonna have to be cage free in 5, 10 or 15 years,” Shapiro says. “These are business people – the supply will follow the demand.”

The demand for cage free only really requires that the chickens be given slightly more space. The misnomer clearly has consumers duped – shelling out top dollar for what they think are more ethical eggs, when in reality, all their paying for is a clearer conscience. It’s a trend that has pasture-raised chicken farmers shaking their heads.

“The consumer is not getting what they think they’re supposed to be getting,” says Matt O’Hayer, Founder and CEO of the Austin-based pasture-raised eggs brand Vital Farms. He finds the conditions of certified “cage-free” birds problematic.

“One square foot per bird in a packed building where the ammonia levels are so high it makes your eyes water, walking through manure their whole life: That’s what a cage-free barn looks like; not a pretty scene,” O’Hayer says. However, he also admits that even small changes can let birds stretch, “It’s better than caged, no doubt. I’d rather be in the mosh pit at the front of the biggest concert in history rather than squeezed in an elevator with 15 people for my entire life.”

The shift towards cage free production comes at a high price for producers. This is due to the massive
Infrastructure additions and costs associated with letting chickens loose to roam, while still keeping them Tightly confined to the point of still being manageable. There’s a reason that producers shifted to caged production over the last half century – and their reasons included keeping chickens healthier while streamlining production.

“In the industry as a whole, people felt like they were doing the right thing (with conventional cages),” says egg industry market analyst Rick Brown. “We got away from cage-free in the 50’s for a whole host of reasons. People felt that the cages were better for the birds.”

However, some producers are working hard to adjust to the shifting winds, opting to heavily invest in cage-free production to meet growing market demand.

Dave Rettig, President of Rembrandt Foods, the third-largest egg producer in the country, has aggressively invested in farm equipment such as cage free production over the last five years. Its growth from zero to nearly 20 percent cage-free production in such a short period of time proves that it’s possible for dedicated companies to transition to 100 percent cage-free production – but only if the transition is helped along by customer preferences and a willingness to pay higher prices.

“I could see a future, truly, where maybe 50 percent of U.S. consumption is cage-free in less than 10 years,” Rettig says. “This is the most significant change in the egg industry that, in my view, we’ve probably ever seen.”

Clovis Rayzel, president of Big Dutchman USA – a subsidiary of Germany-based Big Dutchman which is the largest supplier of chicken and pig housing internationally – is seeing the majority of American egg producers now choosing cage-free systems when they order new houses.

“It’s a very interesting and very big change compared to some years ago, and it is even more interesting because here in this country, we are seeing this change based solely on the market,” Rayzel says.

The popular cage-free aviary systems are the most expensive of possible retrofits compared to single floor barns and enriched colonies. They require more labor, equipment, and feed for the more active chickens, explains Glenn Hickman, owner of Hickman’s Family farms, which helps supply Costco. To build a new barn to house 100,000 chicks can cost a farmer upwards of $4 million dollars, or around $3 million if a farmer decides to retrofit an existing building.

Aviaries are also known to employ three times as many people to tend to the animals and pick eggs out of hard-to reach places. Additionally, cage-free producers are at risk for losing a third of their birds to violent pecking and spread of disease when there is constant contact between birds. Considering the aggressively devastating avian influenza outbreak of 2015, the notion to put birds in “mosh pits” instead of cages seems counter intuitive. Unfortunately, consumer pressure is not always in line with what is best for animals, as producers are discovering.

However, pasture-raised producers like O’Hayer are hopeful that consumers interested in truly learning and informing themselves about actual humane production will skip over the timelines and intentions of foodservice retailers to push for faster changes.

“In the next year or two you’ll see the customer calling [retailers] out,” O’Hayer predicts. “At some point there will be a leader out there in the foodservice realm that will say, ‘We’re only going to do pasture-raised eggs, and skip this other step because I believe it will be the inevitable switch to free-range, pasture-raised, more humane ways of raising our farm animals that work so hard to produce food for us.’”

HSUS food policy director Josh Balk is planning to work one step at a time when it comes to winning consumer support for free-range or pasture-raised egg production models.

“For now, our main focus is getting these hens out of cages,” Balk says. “I think we’re going to finish that up this year and go from there.”

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