Written by Ross Busch
It’s official—as of June 2019, one out of every five laying hens in the United States is living her life outside of a cage. This marks a tremendous milestone for consumers, activists, and businesses alike. The number of caged hens raised in the United States has decreased by 10 million over the past three years, while over 60 million hens now have the ability to roam and roost—redefining industry standards for a more compassionate egg.
Compassion has tracked USDA data since cage-free numbers were first reported by the agency in September 2016. Month after month, we’ve watched the proportion of egg-laying hens housed in cage-free systems versus cruel cage systems steadily increase from 9.8% to 20.2%. The number of cage-free laying hens is now more than double what it was when reporting began, thanks to the more than 300 food companies committed to cage-free supply chains making great strides towards their goals—and conscious consumers who raised their voices and demanded better. Just over the past few months, we’ve seen industry giants like McDonald’s and Walmart report substantial progress towards their 100% cage-free targets, reaching approximately 2,222,222 birds (33%) and 6,113,333 (14%) respectively.
The difference in quality of life for caged and cage-free birds cannot be understated. On one side, a tiny, barren battery cage completely strips a laying hen of her natural behaviors. On the other, cage-free environments allow greater freedom of movement to express critical behaviors, such as perching, scratching, and dust bathing. While cage-free systems do not guarantee a perfect life, they are a meaningful improvement and a strong, positive step for the egg industry.
Although significant progress has been made, much more work remains to be done. The vast majority of laying hens still spend the entirety of their lives suffering in cramped cages. We stand at a critical moment where transparent communication between food companies and egg producers is imperative to making a smooth and stable transition to cage-free systems. And as consumers, we must continue advocating hard for this transition—to ensure commitments are met and demand for higher welfare standards continues to increase.
It is also important we remain vigilant to ensure subpar combination systems—housing that can easily be closed off to restrict animal movement and behavior—do not masquerade as progress. This means choosing systems that are both fit for purpose, delivering an improved quality of life for the hens, and fit for the future, so that they withstand the test of rising consumer expectations.
Building systems that fall short of a truly cage-free environment would be a bad business move for companies and investors. Recent legislation in states such as California and Washington will make caged systems obsolete and bar sales of eggs from caged hens in some of largest egg markets in the country. Continuing to pour money into caged systems that are no longer in line with consumer sentiment or legislative advancement is an unnecessary risk for food companies; it’s time to end the cage age.
Compassion is proud to have played an instrumental role in the drive towards a cage-free food system. Our Food Business team works directly with leading food companies through our annual EggTrack report to ensure companies are supported in their transition to a fully cage-free supply chain. As one of our signature initiatives, EggTrack aims to maintain the market‘s cage-free momentum and provide necessary transparency to consumers. EggTrack is the single largest dataset tracking progress against cage-free commitments, and gives us a solid foundation to continue leading the charge for a cage-free future.
Be sure to keep an eye out in September for our 2019 EggTrack report analyzing the progress of 125 leading food companies!
Ross Busch is the Food Business Coordinator at Compassion in World Farming USA and holds a B.A. in International Affairs & an M.Sc. in Public Policy and Management.