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The Cage-Free Egg Movement
By Hadley Turner

Like most Americans, many clients probably are becoming more interested in where their food comes from. Whether their concerns are GMOs, conditions for crop harvesters overseas, or how meat and other animal products get to their plates, clients want to know more about the ethical parameters of their diets.

One trend in food ethics that seems to be outpacing others is cage-free eggs. The cage-free egg movement is particularly unique because of fierce consumer demand and the response of major restaurants, grocery stores, and corporations.

Word Scramble: Clearing Up Labels
With so many labels and marketing claims out there, some clients may not know what cage free means and how it differs from conventional egg production.

According to the Humane Society of the United States, cage free means that egg-laying hens are not in cages, but it also indicates they're "free to walk, nest, and engage in other natural behaviors," which usually includes perching as well.1 Eggs not labeled as cage free come from hens raised in cages, often referred to as battery cages. Cages can differ in size, but the egg industry standard is approximately 67 square inches of space per hen (about the size of the average mouse pad). Caged hens can't spread their wings, move around, or engage in natural behaviors such as dust bathing. In addition to the stress of constant confinement, caging also can cause hens to suffer broken legs, toes, wings, and other body parts that can become tangled in the cage wire.2 Eggs labeled "cage free" shouldn't be confused with "free-range," "free-roaming," or "pasture-raised," eggs, which indicate hens have "access to the outdoors." Organic eggs also come from hens with outdoor access, while "natural," "farm-fresh," and "vegetarian-fed" labels are unrelated to animal welfare.1

Scope of the Movement
In a general sense, Americans are more concerned than ever about animal welfare in farming practices. In 2013, 89% of roughly 2,600 surveyed Americans said they are "very concerned" about animal welfare.3 The survey was conducted by the American Humane Association, a third-party animal welfare audit program that, along with United Egg Producers (UEP), is responsible for the majority of cage-free labeling.

It's understandable that many consumers consider the treatment of conventional egg-laying hens to be cruel. "The idea of confining an animal in a tiny cage in which she can barely move an inch in her whole life is unsettling to anybody," explains Josh Balk, senior director of food policy at the Humane Society. "There's not anyone out there who works at the headquarters of a restaurant, or a grocery store, or a foodservice company, who is comfortable with the idea that, within their own supply chains and in the food they're providing for their customers or loved ones, [eggs] would come from animals who are virtually immobilized for their entire lives. It is an idea of cruelty that is so out of bounds with their own sensibilities that it simply never can be defended."

Recent legal history has shown that consumers agree. In 2008, the nation's first state cage-free mandate, Proposition 2 in California (which Balk and the Humane Society were responsible for adding to the ballot), was passed. Proposition 2, which applies to all farm animals but specifically targets treatment of egg-laying hens, veal calves, and gestating pigs, prohibits farmers from confining animals in such a manner "that does not allow them to turn around freely, lie down, stand up, and fully extend their limbs."4 According to Balk, Proposition 2 received more "yes" votes than any other citizen-initiated ballot measure in the history of the country. The law has remained despite multiple legal challenges by the California and US egg industries over the past eight years. Proposition 2 went into effect in 2015, though complete enforcement remains to be realized.5

Balk says that the egg industry spent more than $10 million fighting Proposition 2 in California. In a media statement about cage-free eggs, UEP, which represents 95% of US egg farmers, refrains from supporting or vilifying cage-free egg production, simply stating that it recognizes the trend and plans to help its "farmer-members in meeting this changing demand." The statement continues, "UEP supports all methods of hen housing for egg production, when they assure proper hen well-being and meet or exceed all food safety requirements. … The egg farming community will do what is needed to meet the expectations of their customers."

In addition to California's law, Michigan passed a law in 2009 banning battery cages, and Ohio placed a moratorium on the manufacture of new battery cages within the state a year later.6 According to Balk, voters in Massachusetts will have the opportunity to decide a similar proposition, which would ban both the production and sale of eggs from caged hens, during the November 2016 general election.

Within the private sector, much change has occurred recently as well, with more companies making plans to go cage free. McDonald's, Burger King, IHOP, Subway, Denny's, Wendy's, Starbucks, and Unilever—maker of Hellman's Mayonnaise—are among the companies that have pledged to transition to using only cage-free eggs over the next several years. Whole Foods Market sells cage-free eggs exclusively, and Kroger, the nation's second-largest grocery store chain, recently has committed to phasing out eggs from caged hens by 2025.7,8

"For these companies making policies, [I think] you're seeing so many so quickly because there is not one company out there that wants to tell its customers they're okay with animal cruelty and that the eggs on their shelves came from animals that couldn't move," Balk says.

From a nutrition perspective, there's no evidence that either cage-free or free-range eggs differ from conventionally produced eggs.9 However, with consumers' growing interest in where their food comes from and the popularity of eggs as a source of protein, vitamins, and minerals, nutrition professionals should be ready to answer questions about cage-free eggs and how to decipher labels.

— Hadley Turner is an editorial assistant for Today's Dietitian. 

1. How to decipher egg carton labels. The Humane Society of the United States website. http://www.humanesociety.org/issues/confinement_farm/facts/guide_egg_labels.html. Accessed March 10, 2016.

2. Chickens (hens) raised for eggs. Food Empowerment Project website. http://www.foodispower.org/hens-raised-for-eggs/. Accessed March 15, 2016.

3. American Humane Association. Humane Heartland farm animal welfare survey. http://www.americanhumane.org/assets/humane-assets/humane-heartland-farm-animals-survey-results.pdf. Published 2013. Accessed March 10, 2016.

4. Text of proposed laws: proposition 2. State of California website. http://vig.cdn.sos.ca.gov/2008/general/text-proposed-laws/text-of-proposed-laws.pdf#prop2. Accessed March 28, 2016.

5. Prop. 2 timeline. The Human Society of the United States website. http://cagefreeca.com/about-the-issue/prop-2-timeline/. Accessed March 15, 2016.

6. Barren, cramped battery cages. The Humane Society of the United States website. http://www.humanesociety.org/issues/confinement_farm/facts/battery_cages.html. Accessed March 15, 2016.

7. The growing cage-free egg trend. The Humane Society of the United States website. http://www.humanesociety.org/assets/pdfs/farm/cage-free-egg-trend.pdf. Accessed March 10, 2016.

8. Kroger announces goal of 100% cage-free eggs by 2025. The Kroger Company website. http://www.thekrogerco.com/docs/statements-policies/kroger-statement-on-cage-free-eggs.pdf. Accessed March 10, 2016.

9. Anderson KE. Comparison of fatty acid, cholesterol, and vitamin A and E composition in eggs from hens housed in conventional cage and range production facilities. Poult Sci. 2011;90(7):1600-1608.