Do Cage-Free Eggs Matter?

The New York Times

Last Sunday’s New York Times Week in Review section took a look at burgeoning cage-free regulations for egg-laying hens in California, Oregon, Arizona, Colorado, Michigan, Ohio, Florida and Maine. Currently only 2% of America’s hens are raised outside of battery cages (8 x 8 inches allotted to each bird;  6 birds to a cage).

After Iowa, Ohio is America’s second largest producer of eggs and the Buckeye state is the latest to adopt new anti-confinement standards. Animal welfare groups and farmers have agreed to phase out small crates for gestating hogs and veal calves, and to ban new cages for egg-laying hens (existing cages can remain) in Ohio.

The average price of a dozen organic, cage-free eggs is about $3.66 while conventional eggs run $0.93. So, attention Whole Foods shoppers… A family of four living in the second Great Depression, their passion for animal welfare notwithstanding, is unlikely to regularly pay four times for this staple.

Animal welfare groups such as the Humane Society of the United States have aggressively pushed the $590 billion US food-service industry to adopt and promote cage-free egg purveyors. Bon Appetit Management adopted a commitment to purchase only cage-free SHELL eggs. While Bon Appetit has made a strong marketing move with its cage-free policy, the conceit of this decision is that SHELL eggs only account for about 2% of the eggs served in a commercial food service operation — the same proportion as the share of eggs raised cage-free in the US.

There’s no doubt that combination of increased consumer awareness and the dogged work of NGOs like the Humane Society has produced increased public policy in the cage-free egg arena. What is less clear is how impactful these highly-publicized debates have been against an overall objective of increasing animal welfare.

Finally, and forgive the maudlin tone of this post, the cost to produce cage-free eggs is higher potentially pushing smaller producers out of the market. But critics of CSR and sustainability often lament that the lack of high impact priorities creates tepid, green-washed programs. And we need to balance the materiality of CSR execution strategy with consumer demand.

So, the question lingers, should cage-free eggs be a significant component of large-scale sustainable agricultural policy in commerical food service or state legislatures?