Nationwide Press Release: Cage-Free Eggs will not improve animal welfare, egg quality, or cut the price of eggs
The following press release was sent nationwide on April 20, 2016
The saying that "the customer is always right" does not hold true with what's happening to the egg industry and this rapid transition to cage-free eggs. So when news sources quote from animal welfare sources but do not ask the farmer who is caring for his chickens, they are leaving out those who have first-hand experience in raising chickens. The result is the misinformation in the news is staggering. Take the example of events happening on April 7th. The USA Today published a story "Walmart's cage-free vow could cut prices, aid hens" quoting several sources claiming egg-free is expected to lower egg prices. What the story is missing is that egg farmers, like Walmart, have costs to produce or merchandise that they build into their pricing. No one expects Walmart's raising its minimum wage will not translate into increased costs, just as no one should believe that the increased cost to produce cage-free eggs will not also raise prices. The initial investment by the farmer is close to $40 per bird for the building and new equipment (feeders, waterers, nests, perches). This substantial investment will need to be paid by increased costs for the eggs. Cage-free hens use more feed. The labor to collect the eggs will also increase. Is the farmer expected not to recover these costs?
The premise that cage-free eggs will benefit the hen is also not true. Removing chickens from cages, where they have been for decades, will lead to issues with pecking prevented by the cage environment. That is why farmers transitioned to cages decades ago. Furthermore, the eggs are more likely to be contaminated with bacteria due to prolonged exposure from litter and manure in the nest boxes or on the ground. As for the workers, the amount of dust, which can transmit pathogens, inside a cage-free house represents a health risk to farm workers, and the need for workers to collect floor eggs creates ergonomic challenges, too. The most recent Salmonella enteritidis (a foodborne pathogen) outbreak linked to eggs comes from a cage-free farm in Lebanon, Ohio.
The government also plays a role in contributing to misinformation. USDA announced on April 7th a proposed new stricter federal rule governing organic poultry setting space requires at 2 square feet per bird both inside and outside stating the need for poultry to dust-bathe and peck or root in the soil. The rule will also eliminate beak trimming. Miles McEvoy, Deputy Administrator of USDA’s organic program was quoted in the April 8th Wall Street Journal saying that the new regulations “better align with consumer expectations.” Too bad the federal government does not educate consumers on the ramifications of outdoor access (potential for spreading avian influenza, more ectoparasites, an increase in e. coli in poultry, beak trimming reduces hen deaths, etc). McEvoy went to say that Americans “expect organic livestock to spend a considerable amount of their life outside during appropriate weather conditions, so we proposed to codify that in a measurable way.” Betsy Babcock, Handsome Brook Farm in New York is also quoted in the WSJ saying that only 2 square feet of outdoor space is not enough. On her pasture-raised poultry farm that allow 109 square feet of outdoor space as less space means more dirt rapidly happening from the roaming chickens.
Egg farmers who actually raise egg-laying chickens are trying to educate consumers through our association by writing rebuttals and op-eds in newspapers. It's unfortunate the customer is being misled that cage-free eggs are better welfare or better quality eggs. It's unfortunate for the consumer, for the chicken, and the farmers who will be increasing their labor expenses to pick up these eggs laid on the ground. We keep hoping one open-minded retailer will see the truth of what egg farmers keep saying and reverse their policy of transitioning to cage-free.