Many food companies were cajoled or bullied into pledging to serve only cage-free eggs. Typically, these pledges have a fulfillment date of 2025. But industry analysts say it will be nearly impossible for companies to keep these pledges due to the time and cost of converting to cage-free systems. (See also: Issue Brief: Animal welfare in the egg industry.)
Food companies were not only bullied into making unrealistic pledges, but now they are being attacked again by the same groups for not meeting these unrealistic demands. (Click here for more information on companies revising or dropping pledges.)
Cage-Free Supply Lacking
According to the USDA, cage-free pledges made to date would require about 66 billion eggs per year from cage-free hens. But that is far from reach. The USDA reported in February 2023 that there is “a shortage of 127.8 million [cage-free] hens” needed to fulfill these pledges.
As of Nov. 2021, only 12 out of 116 companies had been able to fulfill these pledges, according to a survey conducted by one animal activist group. Nearly 30% of the companies surveyed did not report any progress.
Iowa State University’s Dr. Hongwei Xin, who runs the school’s egg department, has said “converting from cage to cage-free egg production abruptly in 2025” is an idea that is “simply not feasible.”
Overall, the cost of cage-free conversion is expected to be over $10 billion. And inflation, bird flu, and other factors keep driving the costs higher. And consumers largely aren’t willing to pay more.
Consumers may tell a pollster that they support cage-free eggs–because polls often drive aspirational answers. But consumer purchasing behavior shows their real priorities.
In 2015, before many corporate pledges were made, only 6% of the egg market was cage-free. Cage-free eggs were available in almost all markets, but consumers overwhelmingly chose to purchase “regular” eggs.
A study released in early 2023 found that 55% of grocery shoppers are motivated by price and don’t care about whether eggs are cage-free or not. The study noted: “Retailers will have to spend more on eggs to hold egg producers unharmed as they shift from conventional to cage-free eggs.” If not, the share of shoppers not buying eggs would increase 20%.
Trapped: Companies Attacked for Failing to Meet Unrealistic Pledges
Activists pressured food companies to adopt unrealistic pledges. They are now attacking companies for failing to keep their promises.
The Humane League has issued several “Eggspose” reports attacking restaurants and retail brands for failing to report how much progress has been made. “We need your help to compel these companies to publicly keep their word,” The Humane League says.
That compelling includes Humane League protests and accusations of “greed,” “backwardness,” and “broken promises.”
It’s a lesson that these activists are not good partners.
Animal Activists Set to Move Goalposts
Even though animal activists are pushing these cage-free pledges, they are engaging in doublespeak. They have indicated that they don’t find cage-free eggs acceptable, which means they could simply turn around and make more demands–such as free-range-only eggs, which can retail for $8 a dozen or more.
“Cage-free eggs are still produced in ways that cause harm to hens,” says The Humane League.
A lead campaigner for the Humane Society of the United States has admitted, “Anyone who says that cage-free is 100% humane, 100% cruelty-free, just know that’s not accurate. That simply is not accurate.”
“You may see cage-free, free-range, and other so-called humane labels on meat, dairy, and eggs, but don’t buy the hype,” says Mercy for Animals. The group published a blog titled “5 Reasons ‘Cage-Free’ Isn’t What You Think” which complains cage-free hens don’t have access to the outdoors.
HSUS, The Humane League, Mercy for Animals, and other activists pushing cage-free pledges are vegan groups that ultimately don’t want anyone to eat eggs–no matter how they are raised.
Making a pledge to appease animal activists invites chaos, cost, and brand attacks.
Ultimately, these animal activists want to eliminate all animal agriculture, from meat to eggs to dairy, no matter how the animals are raised. That viewpoint does not represent consumers.
The best way to handle these fringe activists is to ignore them.