By Mike Barnett
Cage-free eggs. Sounds good. But is it really better for the chickens that lay them?
Maybe if you believe in live free and die hard.
Cage-free eggs are the new rage. Driven by consumer perception that cage-free chickens are happier and healthier, McDonald’s, Starbucks, Costco and, most recently, Panera Bread will require suppliers to go cage-free over the next decade.
That leaves the egg industry—worth $10 billion a year—struggling to figure out how to shift from confined hen laying to cage-free.
It’s not as simple as turning chickens loose. Cage-free doesn’t mean problem-free.
As reported by the Associated Press, University of California researchers recently published a comparison study of different housing systems.
Among their findings:
- Cage-free barns lost 13 percent of hens. Caged systems had a 5 percent mortality rate.
- More chickens suffered from fractured breast bones because they attempt to fly inside barns.
- Cannibalism increased among some breeds in cage-free hen houses.
The study also notes that cage-free chickens produced between 5 percent and 10 percent fewer eggs while farmers’ costs were 23 percent higher.
That could be why cage-free eggs can be twice as expensive as caged eggs.
Just goes to show that there are costs associated with buzzwords and feel-good marketing schemes—that may or may not benefit the animals involved.
Egg growers will adjust. Consumers’ demands will be met. They will get their cage-free eggs. No matter what the cost to the chicken. Or the pocketbook.