Everyone from McDonald's to Walmart is declaring their commitment to cage-free eggs. Is this huge change in how the United States produces eggs all it's cracked up to be?
It's 5:30 a.m., and the fluorescent lights inside the Midwestern chicken house flicker on. The hen in cage 405 wakes to the whir of ventilation fans and a slight scent of ammonia, wing-to-wing with five other hens in a microwave-oven-sized enclosure. The feed belt in front of her pen starts rolling past, so she sticks her head through the bars and pecks the soy/corn mixture. She is 19 weeks old, and has just arrived from the pullet- (young hen) raising facility. But now she is ready to lay her first egg.
Hens prefer some privacy when laying, but since there is no nest or secluded area in which to sit, the Lohmann LSL white hen just deposits her egg on the wire floor of the cage. It rolls down a 6-degree slope to a conveyor belt. The egg eventually joins others from the 10 rows of cages stacked eight high that run the extent of the house—about the length of two 747 planes resting nose-to-tail. Eggs from all 200,000 hens steadily proceed to the end of the house, where they are washed, sanitized with a light chlorine solution, visually inspected and graded by weight. The eggs are mechanically placed in cartons and dispatched in refrigerated trucks to grocery stores.
The rest of the day, the hen stands in her cage. She fiddles with her feed belt. She sips at her water nipple. She poops through the wire floor onto another belt, a manure belt that removes the waste out of the house to a storage area. She can't move or spread her wings very much. She can't dust-bathe to work dirt through her feathers, which she often feels the urge to do. She can't perch up high to avoid predators, real or imagined.
Every day is the same, and, as the weeks go by, her bones grow brittle because she can't move around. Her feathers rub off on the sides of the cage.
Still, she survives, maybe longer than in the wild with predators or diseases. At 78 weeks old, when her eggshells grow thin, she is sacrificed—or, as the poultry people put it, the house is "depopulated" (usually becoming food for other animals). Workers then ready the house for another batch of 200,000 hens to lay nutrient-packed eggs to feed Americans, at a low price.
The average American eats about 260 eggs a year—whole and as ingredients in foods like mayonnaise and ice cream. And U.S. companies produce about 83 billion whole eggs annually, with so-called "battery cage" farms like this producing about 90 percent of them. But, perhaps, not for long.
There's a revolution happening in the egg industry. Consumers want eggs from hens that don't live in inhumane-seeming cages. A 2014 poll showed that 62 percent of Californians said they'd be more likely to eat at a restaurant that served only cage-free eggs. And a 2014 Farm Animal Welfare Survey from the American Humane Association found that 76 percent of Americans are willing to pay more for humanely raised meat, dairy and eggs. The industry listened. Starting in September 2015, a series of the biggest U.S. restaurant chains (like McDonald's) and retail stores (like Walmart) pledged to buy only eggs from cage-free hens in the coming years. Now, an estimated 38 million of the country's 300 million egg-laying hens are cage-free, almost doubled from two years ago. In a few years, you may not be able to find eggs from caged hens at all.
This tremendous shift will cost the American egg industry billions of dollars and countless hours and energy. But will it be worth it? What, exactly, is a cage-free hen, anyway? Are the chickens really any happier? Or is it just another way to charge a few extra dollars for what is currently one of the cheapest sources of high-quality protein on the planet?
Before World War II, family farmers raised small flocks of hens that pecked at bugs and seeds in the grass and spent their nights in small, backyard henhouses. Then a debilitating disease called coccidiosis, caused by a feces-dwelling parasite, started afflicting the birds. Farmers began lifting the hens off the ground and putting them in cages to protect them. With the cages, farmers realized they had better control of the hens—their diet, manure, temperature and the resulting eggs. As the U.S. population boomed, larger and larger hen-housing systems were built. Today, conventional laying houses each hold some 200,000 caged hens or more.
Joy Mench, Ph.D., an animal scientist at the University of California, Davis, researches ways to improve the welfare of captive animals like hens. She explains that battery cages don't meet a hen's basic behavioral needs.
So what's really important? "A nest," she says. "They like that secluded area to lay their eggs. Perches are very important, particularly because they go up to roost at night." In addition, a scratch pad or area with dirt or seed because hens naturally spend a lot of time scratching and foraging, as well as working loose material into their feathers to clean themselves, called dust-bathing. "And, obviously for any animal, not specific to poultry, having freedom to move around is key."
The magazine-sized space each chicken inhabits in a conventional cage does not allow for any of this. Though the cages offer other protections (more on that later), animal advocates believe the cages are cruel. Most states have laws that prevent cruelty to pets, yet few similar laws exist to protect farm animals. In 2007, that began to change.
In a cage-free environment like this one, hens have more freedom to assert themselves and peck at less-dominant flock mates. Called pecking order, it's a natural behavior, but critics of cage-free systems say it hinders a flock's overall welfare.
Modern hens have been bred to produce more eggs. Today, a caged hen lays about 352 eggs in a typical 15-month laying cycle and a cage-free hen about 340.
Average annual egg production per hen:
California Leads the Way
Joe Ramsey, a lawyer, animal lover and a former board chair of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), submitted an initiative to the California attorney general's office called the California Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act. It was the perfect place for a first attempt at changing how eggs are produced in the United States. California produced 14 percent of the country's eggs at that time. It's also a state that allows citizen-initiated ballot initiatives.
Animal rights groups, family farmers, veterinarians and other public health folks supported the proposed act and, by February 2008, supporters had gathered 790,486 signatures (they only needed 433,971 to get the measure on the ballot). The measure, Proposition 2, or the Standards for Confining Farm Animals, stated that animals couldn't be confined in a way that prevented them from "lying down, standing up, and fully extending his or her limbs" or "turning around freely." Californians for Humane Farms ran the "YES! on Prop 2" campaign, supported in part by $4 million from the Humane Society.
On Election Day that November, Prop 2 passed with 63.5 percent of the vote and the law went into effect in 2015. HSUS went on to spearhead similar initiatives in Michigan (to ban battery-cage confinement) and Ohio (banning the building of any new egg barns with cages)—both of which passed.
The momentum to eliminate caged hens has been mounting ever since. Videos of terrible treatment of hens keep surfacing, and Massachusetts recently voted to ban cages for all hens. But the biggest turning point came on September 9, 2015, when McDonald's made a groundbreaking statement: "To meet consumers' changing expectations and preferences, McDonald's today announced that it will fully transition to cage-free eggs for its nearly 16,000 restaurants in the U.S. and Canada over the next 10 years." Just about every other restaurant and grocery chain in the country followed suit, declaring they would only buy eggs from cage-free hens—some sooner than others. In April 2016, Walmart, the nation's largest retailer, joined the charge, pledging support for cage-free hen management—a system most regular people know nothing about.
"Consumers' minds should be blown that you can buy a dozen eggs for 99¢, but somehow they're not. You pay $5 for a latte, but people are just not sure about that organic dozen eggs for $5." —Jesse LaFlamme CEO of Pete & Gerry's
A Day Uncaged
At 10 a.m., in a different henhouse almost as big as the first one but without small battery cages, another hen lays her daily egg in a nest box. It rolls down a slope, like in the caged house, and onto a conveyor belt. She hops out of the box when she's done, pecks at a nipple drinker and then rests on one of seven galvanized steel perches. She shares these perches in her "colony unit"—a 8-by-6-by-8-foot vertical aviary-style enclosure—with 141 other hens; there are six long rows of aviaries totaling 351 units in the henhouse, holding almost 50,000 chickens.
The aviary gates swing open at 11 a.m. (when the farmers figure most eggs have been laid) and the hen hops down to the litter floor with the 851 other chickens from the five other colony units in her pen. She technically has 81 square inches of litter floor to herself (which, added to her aviary space, is double the room a battery-caged hen has), but many of the hens are still up in the aviaries, and so she has more space to peck around and dust-bathe. Soon, a bossy type-A hen approaches her. She pecks her hard, until the first hen hops back up on a perch. Some of the other hens lay their eggs in the litter; occasionally, a human worker comes by and gathers them up.
These vertical aviary cages are one common type of cage-free system. The USDA defines "cage-free" as simply a facility that provides hens "the freedom to roam within the area during the laying cycle," in addition to unlimited food and water. But there are no space requirements for the hens, no mention of perches in the actual USDA definition and no guidelines for nesting boxes, unless an outside group like the American Humane Association or Humane Farm Animal Care has certified that the facility meets their higher standards. Most cage-free hens never go outside.
When hens are free to move in cage-free settings, pecking order—a real and normal instinct for chickens—expresses itself more fully. Alpha hens peck hens lower on the totem pole when they are all together in one big flock, and some even kill each other. When hens are crowded together in small cages, the natural pecking order tends to be much less severe—that's one major unexpected benefit to cages. In a cage, there are fewer animals to gang up on lower-ranking birds, and the alpha hen doesn't have to continually assert herself.
But, when the cage-free movement began, little systematic research had been conducted to determine what would happen with pecking order or whether cage-free systems could even work on a large scale. To address the void, McDonald's led the charge to study cage-free systems. In 2011, McDonald's helped form a broad group of stakeholders called the Coalition for a Sustainable Egg Supply (CSES), which included egg producers, poultry scientists, food manufacturers and others. At a single facility in the Midwest, CSES raised and studied flocks of chickens grown in either conventional cages, a cage-free system or so-called enriched cages (cages containing perches, nest boxes and scratch pads for the chickens).
Results, they reported, were mixed. The cage-free system was better for the hens' bone health (their legs were stronger); they could perform many more natural behaviors, such as foraging, dust-bathing, flying and nesting, and they still had a lot of their feathers.
But it seemed cage-free was worse than battery cages for indoor air quality (there was more ammonia and dust) and worker respiratory health, and was more costly—36 percent higher. Much of this is from higher payroll due to increased worker tasks like gathering eggs from the floor and from other non-nest-box places the hens sometimes lay them. Also, pullets raised in aviaries (to accustom them to the system) cost more.
The cage-free hens also had more than twice the mortality of conventional hens. In the study, 11.5 percent died compared to 4.7 percent for conventional systems. This mirrors the findings of other studies that found that cage-free and free-range hens often suffer higher mortality rates, says Joy Mench, the UC Davis animal scientist.
Turns out, hens are pretty mean when they have room to be.
"The cage-free system gives you a larger repertoire of behaviors," says Ken Anderson, Ph.D., a poultry scientist at North Carolina State University who conducted some of the CSES research. "When you take into account the reality that chickens have a social structure that includes very low-ranking, mid-ranking and high-ranking individuals, the welfare of the overall flock is not enhanced. The low-ranking individuals usually wind up being shorted on nutrients, shorted on space and are the brunt of the aggressive acts within the flock."
The Free-est Hens
On a warm Vermont day, the sun pushes through clouds to highlight a few vibrant red maples on a hillside, a little way up from a flock of Bovans Brown hens poking around in a grassy field. A chorus of coos floats up. "We call it singing," says Jesse LaFlamme, CEO of Pete & Gerry's Organic Eggs, the largest producer of cage-free and free-range eggs in the U.S. "It's their bird song."
Each chicken in the pen does her own thing: one scratches a hole in the dirt, preparing to dust-bathe. Another out in the field pokes at clover and dandelions, searching for bugs and seeds. A hen right next to the fence stares confidently at visitors, then suddenly turns her head and pecks a wimpier hen that ventures too close. Another hen attempts escape, flapping her wings and rising a few feet. The fence is just too high, so she returns to the grass and resumes her search for seeds.
The inside of the henhouse is different, but not in a jarring way: the chicken noise is squawkier, louder. The air has a slight dustiness to it and smells of manure, but it's not overpowering, and there's no ammonia scent at all. Many more hens spend their time here, inside. There are 19,000 hens total at this free-range facility. If this were a cage facility there would be upwards of 250,000 in the same space, minus the outside yard. Along the length of the 500-foot-long barn is a scratch area, and down the middle is a long row of curtained nest boxes, with plenty of perch space, feeders and waterers. In the winter, the hens spend most of their time in here.
But not all hens producing organic eggs are raised this way. The USDA requires organic eggs to come from hens that are uncaged, with access to the outdoors, eating an organic diet and never given antibiotics or exposed to synthetic chemicals. But the hens don't necessarily run in a pasture hunting for bugs and seeds. A 2015 Cornucopia Institute report on organic egg farms estimated that 80 percent of organic eggs come from facilities where the hens' only outdoor access areas are small, covered porches that fit just a few chickens at a time.
LaFlamme picks up a hen that has ambled over and strokes her back. "It's pretty simple," he says. "These hens have some basic natural behaviors. Their whole life is to exercise these behaviors. That's all they have." The strong instinct to scratch, to lay an egg in a nest where they feel protected and secluded, to roost, especially at night when they're completely putting their guard down, this is what they do. "We accommodate those behaviors," says LaFlamme. "Anything less is cruelty, in my opinion."
LaFlamme is a big proponent of free-range hens like these, the next step up from cage-free. Yet this is not a hippie, mobile-cage, all-pasture operation that serves a small number of local customers. Pete & Gerry's is a large, growing business that prioritizes animal well-being: its eggs are all Certified Humane—meeting some tough standards. Pete & Gerry's partners with 120 family farms all over the country; this means, usually, a farm with one or two large henhouses—enough to support a family of four. LaFlamme's own family farm in Monroe, N.H., across the river from this Vermont farm, is one of the original Pete and Gerry's farms, and his family still lives there. Driving along in his older, blue Volkswagen Jetta with two booster seats in the back and the license plate "Cluck-1," he passes his grandfather's old red barns and his mother mowing his lawn.
The CSES and other studies' findings that mortality is higher when chickens are let out of cages flummoxes LaFlamme. "The idea that cage-free might be less humane than cages because of 'high mortality' is often brought up by the larger industry and opinion articles. Given our experience and data, I think the argument is baseless," he says. He has two years of data from 127 free-range and organic flocks (almost 2 million hens at 90 family farms) that produce Pete & Gerry's eggs, far more chickens than in the CSES reports. Hen mortality: 4.28 percent, which is less than that of conventional cages in the CSES study.
"Hens have a very hierarchical social structure; there are absolutely type-A personalities, many of whom can be aggressive and downright mean. But is the solution really to put hens in small wire cages?" LaFlamme asks. "How about creating a cage-free environment that mitigates the frustration of a naturally aggressive hen, distracts her and occupies her time with natural behaviors instead of aggression toward her flock-mates?"
Josh Balk, vice president of farm-animal protection at HSUS, points out that the farmers in the CSES study had never raised hens in a cage-free system before. "It's kind of like me comparing the safety of a motorcycle to a car, but I've never driven a car before," he says. "I get in the car and start bumping curbs and not knowing how to park, and I say, hey, cars are more dangerous than motorcycles. Those producers never did cage-free before and that is a basic flaw of that study, and that's why the very backers of the study still decided to go cage-free." In fact, after the studies were published with mixed findings, McDonald's decided to stick with going cage-free.
Is Cage-Free Enough?
Whether it makes sense to push the needle even further, to free-range, is controversial. Poultry scientist Ken Anderson argues that free-range, like Pete and Gerry's eggs, is unattainable for large-scale production. "We're trying to produce food for soon-to-be 9 billion people. You can't do it with [free-]range production, we don't have enough space," he says. "We have a moral obligation to care for our animals in a humane manner, but we still have to produce food and feed people."
A study by Promar International, an agricultural consultancy company (commissioned by the United Egg Producers), estimated that if all the hens in the country were free-range, farmers would need 1,037,000 more acres (that's 1,620 square miles) just to grow the 5.5 billion additional pounds of feed that active hens would require. And at a density of 1,000 hens per acre, they'd need 400,000 more acres (625 square miles) for the hens to live. The U.S. has this kind of space, but no one knows whether converting all that land is possible, environmentally healthy or prohibitively expensive, especially since an estimated 1 million acres are lost annually to industry, urbanization and roads.
One answer at the consumer level is to cut back on the number of eggs we eat, says Balk. "We advocate three approaches to our food choices: reduce consumption of meat and other animal-based foods; refine the diet by avoiding products from the worst production systems, such as switching to cage-free eggs; and replace animal-based foods with plant-based foods." About 70 percent of eggs produced in the U.S. are sold whole in shells. Thirty percent are further processed into liquid, frozen or dried "egg products." These are used in processed foods, such as mayonnaise, ice cream, cakes and cookies or in restaurants or food-service food. Consumers concerned about animal welfare can impact that sizable 30 percent chunk of the egg industry by skipping processed foods made with eggs.
On the national level, there's precedent to make the incremental step to cage-free. The European Union banned conventional battery cages in 2012, and several U.S. states now have their own laws. Producers have to switch their cages every 10 to 15 years anyway; why not replace them with cage-free systems, say proponents. It would still be a major overhaul and the transition would cost a lot of money. Often, they can use the same barns, but with fewer hens per barn some barns would have to be built to make up the difference, and operating costs would be a little higher, as the CSES study showed.
Opponents say the cost increase of going cage-free will make life tough for low-income families who rely on inexpensive eggs as a healthy protein source. One study (funded by the National Pork Council) found that egg prices in California increased 49¢ per dozen after the law went into effect. That's an increase of $14 per person per year, or $70 per family.
Still, "Consumers' minds should be blown that you can buy a dozen eggs for 99¢, but somehow they're not," LaFlamme laughs. "You pay $5 for a latte, but people are just not sure about that organic dozen eggs for $5."
But consumer demand is going in that direction anyway and, with it, the entire egg industry.
Balk sums it up. "When you have the Humane Society of the United States, McDonald's, Walmart and three of the top four egg producers all saying the same exact thing, you know that you've found common ground and are moving the industry in a better direction."
At 7:45 p.m., the overhead lights start to gradually dim in the cage-free aviary facility, mimicking dusk. Our hen notices it, hops back into her colony enclosure and finds an elevated roost. There she perches, safe from predators. She has never gone outside, but still, after a day of laying an egg in a nest box and avoiding harsh pecks from a few type-A hens, she's tired. The lights go out completely 15 minutes later, the squawks of the other 49,841 hens quiet down, and the house rests.
Rachael Moeller Gorman's articles for EatingWell have won four James Beard Awards and been nominated for two more. She lives in Massachusetts.
Watch: How to Buy Free-Range Eggs