Business Pressure Changing Egg Production, “Animal Welfare” Perceived as Good Branding

David Gelles reported in the business section of Sunday’s New York Times that, “American hens produce more than 83 billion eggs a year. Most hens — more than 285 million in all — are housed in cages not much bigger than a shoe box. Stuck in one of these so-called battery cages, a hen might live her whole life without seeing the sunlight, let alone stretching her wings.

Pressure from animal rights activists has led many of the biggest food companies in the country to commit to what are being described as more humane alternatives. In recent months, Walmart, Costco, McDonald’s and others have pledged to transition to buying only cage-free eggs in the years to come.”

Mr. Gelles indicated that, “All told, more than 175 major retailers and restaurants have committed to switching to cage-free eggs. Together, they account for more than 90 percent of the domestic egg market.

“A big change is underway. But raising a hen in a ‘cage free’ environment doesn’t mean it will live in a bucolic setting, pecking for bugs in a great green field.

“Instead, the most common large-scale cage-free alternatives are so-called aviaries in which hens roost in close quarters, with row upon row stacked high in enormous barns. A critical difference is that they can move around. And in many aviaries, hens have access to outdoor space, though it is often small and hard to reach.”

After additional analysis, the Times article stated that, “In short, liberating hens from cages — and holding them in aviaries — doesn’t necessarily make them, or the workers who handle them, any healthier. Yet Big Food’s embrace of cage-free eggs has been remarkably thorough and swift.

“What’s more, the shift seems largely driven by businesses, not by consumer tastes, or at least not yet. Cage-free eggs account for less than 10 percent of overall egg sales each year, and demand isn’t growing especially fast. Instead, the corporate world appears to be trying to get ahead of a problem before many consumers push for change.”

Concluding, the Times article pointed out that, “If shoppers really want to buy eggs and have clear consciences, they may need to pay extra for pasture-raised, organic eggs, which can cost two, three or even four times as much as conventional eggs. Anything less than that means buying into an industrialized system of mass egg production, be it conventional or cage-free.”

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