Of all the turmoil in consumer markets, one trend has held steady and that’s the rise and rise of cage-free eggs.
Today’s cage-free flock size currently stands around 35% of the total market—an increase from around 10% in 2016, when the USDA began recording the data.
Why is the cage-free trend growing?
The main reason why we are seeing a push toward cage-free eggs is due to growing concern for animal welfare – in this case, the welfare of egg-laying hens. This has given rise to a number of corporate commitments and anti-confinement legislation, which continues to have an impact up the supply chain.
Is a cage-free life better for chickens?
Welfare can be broken down into three main components:
- Physical well-being refers to the health of an individual animal as well as the whole flock of hens, and mainly refers to the absence of pain, injury, and disease.
- Mental well-being refers to the absence of negative feelings like fear and distress, as well as an opportunity for positive feelings like relaxation and safety.
- Behavioral expression refers to the opportunity for animals to freely execute highly motivated behaviors, in the case of hens, activities such as dust-bathing, scratching, and nesting. Just as dogs like to dig in the yard and cats like to scratch on a scratching post, these animals have natural behaviors too.
Good animal welfare incorporates each of these components. Cage confinement, on the other hand, is widely considered to be one of the worst-of-the-worst animal agriculture practices. Simply put, cages do not provide basic behavioral or physiological needs for the hens.
In cage systems, 6 to as many as 12 hens are crammed into metal wire cages. In those cages, each hen has less than an iPad’s worth of space to move around. And this is how they live for almost their entire lives. The barns of caged facilities have rows and rows of cages like this stacked several tiers high, so they look more like warehouses than farms.
As you can imagine, these cages severely restrict animals’ freedom of movement – to the point that they’re unable to simply get up, turn around, and fully extend their wings. They cannot express nearly any of their highly motivated natural behaviors, such as foraging, ground pecking, and scratching. This results in these animals being forced to live incredibly psychologically frustrating and highly sedentary lives.
Unfortunately, this leads to some dramatically poor health outcomes for these animals, such as disuse osteoporosis which is a weakening of bones due to lack of exercise and hemorrhagic fatty liver syndrome which is the accumulation of excess fat in the liver tissue that can eventually rupture the organ also due to lack of exercise. These conditions are chronic, painful, and directly tied to the use of cages, and they lead to an egregious quality of life for these birds and often early death.
Why is cage-free better?
Cage-free systems represent a minimum expected standard of animal welfare. The birds are typically still housed indoors, in either a single-level barn or a multi-tier aviary where the birds can walk up ramps or spread their wings and fly to higher areas, meaning there’s plenty of opportunity for exercise so the birds can achieve more optimal levels of health. In cage-free systems, we see much lower rates of chronic health conditions.
Cage-free systems typically provide hens with more enrichments such as perches and nest boxes which, not only improve the animals’ mental-wellbeing, but can also have a positive impact on their physical health. For example, access to littered floors allows the birds to dustbathe which provides them with comfort and helps to maintain the quality and integrity of their feathers.
However, it's important to note that cage-free systems are still exclusively indoor systems. The birds still don't experience the quality of life that free-range or pasture-raised birds do, but it is certainly a step up from the conventional cage both physically and mentally, representing a rebalanced quality of life.
For readers who want to be sure they’re not complicit in animal cruelty, try pasture-raised eggs or many of the delicious egg substitutes such as tofu for scrambling, aquafaba for baking, or plant-based eggs for just about everything.
See which food companies are going cage-free
Later this month, Compassion in World Farming will release its sixth annual EggTrack report. This report tracks major food companies' progress towards their commitments to source 100% cage-free eggs. EggTrack ensures companies can and will stick to their cage-free egg commitments, on or ahead of schedule.
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