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Retail Chains Reconsidering 2025 Cage-Free Commitments

10/24/2022

With the status of Proposition #12 under consideration by the Supreme Court of the United States, and facing commercial realities, a number of retailers have announced that they will not meet commitments made in 2020 to sell only cage-free eggs by 2025, less than 26 months away.

 

Most of the retail chains, groceries, restaurants and other users of eggs were coerced by the Humane Society of the United States and other organizations into announcing commitments to use or stock only cage-free eggs.  In response producers and packers commenced programs to either convert their existing facilities or to erect new cage-free complexes and farms but the rate of conversion has fallen over the past two years.

 

Walmart claim that twenty percent of all egg sales in their U.S. stores are cage-free with close to 40 percent in Sam’s Club warehouses.  Kroger, and presumably now Albertson’s if the acquisition is approved by the DOJ, has extended their compliance deadline to 2030. The company anticipates that seventy percent of sales thereafter will comprise cage-free eggs. Kroger anticipates that producers will be expected to use housing systems consistent with research and evaluation of welfare.

 

Walmart intends to continue promoting cage-free eggs through allocating space in display coolers, in recognition of a large price conscious demographic. Costco has completely converted to cage-free eggs.

 

Many consumers are obviously in favor of cage-free housing based on welfare considerations.  Surveys conducted during the 2010s that purported to demonstrate a high level of demand for the category were essentially spurious. They rose to the level of asking ten-year-olds if they are in favor of ice cream. Most consumers want cage-free product but only an affluent proportion are willing to pay the premium over conventional eggs.   

 

The Food Marketing Institute and United Egg Producers have commissioned economists at three major Land Grant universities to produce a report defining the restraints to meeting the 2025 deadline.  This presumably will provide cover for the major chains and egg users to resist further pressure by animal welfare advocacy organizations.

 

In weekly commentaries, EGG-NEWS has consistently maintained that the 2025 deadline for conversion to cage-free housing would not be met. Postings thereafter predicted that at least 30 percent of U.S. hens would be housed under confinement into 2030.  It would seem appropriate to convert enrichable cages installed during the early 2000s to enriched modules allowing 144 square inches per hen.  There is sufficient evidence to show that enriched colony modules actually provide a higher level of welfare than multi-tier aviaries.  This is evidenced by the prevalence of keel injuries and higher flock mortality in aviaries, especially with advancing age.  Cost of production from floor systems and aviaries is higher than from either cages or colony modules based on labor requirements, fixed capital costs including interest and depreciation, feed consumed and an increased level of cracked and dirty eggs that are not saleable.

 

In retrospect, it appears that both chains and producers have been pressured into alternative housing systems without a full appreciation of the technical and financial implications. The most significant deterrent to complete conversion is the disinclination of a high proportion of consumers to pay more for a cage-free egg compared to a conventional product.  Obviously in the future, there will be a market for eggs produced from a range of systems extending from conventional cages to pasture and with various attributes including nutritional enrichment.  Consumers deserve choice and it is both unethical and unreasonable for welfare activists to expect many low-income consumers to either spend more on eggs or reduce their volume of purchase thereby depriving them of nutritious food.