A stroll down the egg aisle at any grocery store blasts the eyes with seemingly endless options. Cage free! Vegetarian fed! Free range! Brown eggs! Pasture grown! Organic! What's a consumer to do?
I was interviewed last week by our local public radio station for a story on just what "cage free" means when we see it on the egg cartons at the grocery store. I explained that except for "certified organic," neither the Indiana nor federal government regulates the use of the other oft-used descriptive egg terms. (This does not stop consumer food labeling lawsuits.) However, the industry itself has given meaning to the term "cage free" eggs.
The United Egg Producers operates the UEP Certified program for cage free eggs. To market eggs as being UEP Certified, a farmer must implement the UEP scientific guidelines on 100% of his or her flocks. An auditing program ensures each farmer is compliant with the scientific guidelines. Nearly 80% of the eggs in the US are produced in compliance with the UEP Certified program. About 6% of the eggs purchased in the US come from cage-free systems.
Under the UEP Certified program for cage free eggs, a producer must provide between 1 and 1.5 square feet per hen, depending on whether the hen has access to vertical space (such as a multi-tiered system). The hens must have access to 6 inches of elevated perch space per bird. The farmer must provide access to fresh feed at all times. Hens should not have to travel more than 26 feet to reach food. Likewise, clean fresh water must be available at all times. Nests are provided to facilitate egg collection, minimize cloacal cannibalism, and for food safety. A minimum of nine square feet of nest space per 100 hens must be provided. The nests should be dark to decrease the risk of cannibalism. The UEP Certified programs has additional requirements for litter areas, lighting, temperature, and air quality. A farmer that meets the UEP Certified guidelines will be recognized as being UEP compliant and can market his or her eggs as "UEP Certified Cage Free."
It is important to realize what cage free does not mean. It is not hens running wild in a green pasture, open to the elements and to predators. The hens are still safely located in a barn, but they have the freedom to go where they want. There is a concern that too much space can be stressful as the hens' natural aggressive tendencies are expressed. According to a 2015 industry study, cage free systems result in higher hen mortality rates than traditional cage systems. The leading cause in death was pecking from other birds. The study found little to no difference in the quality or nutrition of cage free eggs compared to eggs produced in a traditional system that uses cages.
No federal law requires producers to move to cage free systems. California passed a ballot proposition a few years ago requiring laying hens have enough room to lay down, turn around, and spread their wings. That measure also required any eggs sold in California to meet these requirements. Michigan and a few other states also require more space for laying hens. Despite this lack of a legal mandate, we are seeing a large number of producers and major egg purchasers announce they will go cage free in the next few years. McDonalds, Denny's, Target, Costco, Burger King, and Starbucks are just a few of the commercial buyers who have announced they are going cage free in the next 5 to 10 years. It isn't the law that is driving these companies to go cage free - it is consumers. Growing consumer demand has led to wider availability of cage free eggs in the supermarkets over the past few years. Now consumer demand is enticing big business to use only cage free eggs.
In a 2015 study carried out by researchers at Michigan State University and UC Davis, eggs from a large cage free house cost about 15 cents more to produce, per dozen, than eggs from traditional cages. Farmers have to purchase new equipment and refit their barns for cage free production. It looks like consumers and big food companies are willing to accept that increase.