In the past few years, nearly every major food company has committed to go 100% cage-free—and as our annual EggTrack reports have detailed, considerable progress is being made in the transition to a cage-free future. Since 2016, the proportion of hens raised in cage-free systems has grown from 9.8% to 35%.
But despite huge gains, a potential obstacle has emerged. As companies move ever closer to their cage-free deadlines, there is still food industry discussion about an alternative to going truly cage-free: Combination systems. And while the name sounds innocent enough, it disguises an ugly truth.
Just by closing a few doors, a combination system allows cage-free barns to easily revert to a caged setup, preventing hens from moving freely throughout the barn or accessing litter on the floors. In the blink of an eye, a “cage-free” system can effectively operate like its caged predecessor, with consumers—who think they’re buying more compassionate products—none the wiser.
These convertible housing systems function as cage-free aviaries when the doors are open. But when the doors are closed, hens are confined to crowded spaces very similar to the current industry-standard cages, restricted from moving freely throughout the system, and deprived of key features of a cage-free environment—including access to the littered floor, where hens express important natural behaviors like foraging and dustbathing. Without constant oversight, it would be difficult for external authorities, such as third-party certifications, to know just how often—or how long—these doors are closed in a given barn.
It is troubling to see some egg producers exploring this dangerous loophole to mitigate the cost of transitioning to true cage-free systems. However, there has been pushback to these efforts in recent years. Top third-party animal welfare certifications, including Certified Humane, Animal Welfare Approved (AWA), and Global Animal Partnership (G.A.P.), have updated their laying hen standards within the past two years so that combination cages, or any doors remaining from pre-cage-free equipment, would not be permitted. Some food businesses such as restaurant giant Taco Bell—which has already fulfilled its 100% cage-free egg commitment—have also ensured their egg producers do not use combination systems.
The food industry's resistance to combination cages is essential—but there is still a lot of work to be done.
As the world moves towards a 100% cage-free future, it is critical that producers invest in systems that respect consumer values and allow companies that source their eggs to meet the terms of their cage-free commitments. With customer demand for more compassionate products on the rise and states across the country passing crucial legislation banning the sale of caged eggs, kicking cages to the curb is not only good for animals and consumers, but also good for business.
In the months and years to come and as cage-free deadlines loom, we hope the egg industry is aware that consumers are watching—and will not accept any shortcuts that compromise animal welfare.
For more information about this issue and the state of the cage-free marketplace, stay tuned for our 2022 EggTrack report, coming next month! This year, our cage-free progress tracker includes badges for companies that have explicitly banned combination cages from their supply chains. Be sure to sign up for our email alerts to be the first to know when the report is live!