It all started in 2008, when California voters approved a ballot measure that outlawed confining all farm animals—including chickens—to small cages. The landscape around egg production in the United States is changing. These days, it's actually more like a tectonic shift.
That law went into effect in January 2015, and several major national chains—including McDonald’s, Burger King, Starbucks, Panera Bread, and even Dunkin’ Donuts—followed suit, setting time tables for going completely cage-free.
And now, it looks like Massachusetts will follow California's lead. This November, voters are expected to approve a ballot measure that would ban the sale of eggs, pork, or chicken from farms using small crates or cages.
At each of these milestones, producers and their surrogate industry groups have warned that switching to cage-free eggs will mean paying more at the cash register. The animal welfare advocates behind Massachusetts’ cage-free ballot question don’t dispute that cage-free eggs cost more than conventional eggs, but say the increase amounts to about a penny per egg.
Unfortunately, it's a little higher than that. According to a new monthly report put out by the United States Department of Agriculture, large cage-free white eggs cost an average of $2.84 a dozen, compared to $1.11 for large conventional white eggs.
That looks like a lot more money for a dozen eggs, and for many families, it indeed is. But there are good reasons why cage-free costs more. For one, we don't have anywhere near the production capability nationwide to make cage-free eggs viable for both farmers and consumers. As it stands, it’s insanely expensive for existing poultry farms to upgrade their operations to cage-free, a cost that can easily put a farmer out of business.
What’s more, free-roaming birds take up more space, often costing farmers more money to raise, and those costs often get passed along to the consumer. But even when the difference in production costs between cage-free and conventional eggs is negligible, retailers will sometimes mark up the cage-free eggs as a specialty item.
The proposed law in Massachusetts is unlikely to move the needle much toward a cage-free society, except to regulate the eggs that can be sold in-state. Every poultry facility in Massachusetts except one already complies with the law, after all. Many people believe most large retailers will be voluntarily cage-free (forcing their suppliers to go cage-free, by default) before any state’s law would take effect. Earlier this year, Walmart joined the parade of large retailers committing to go cage-free, a commitment it plans to fulfill by 2025. This could be the biggest announcement yet, as Walmart has the ability, through its supply chain and massive buying power, to both encourage farms to migrate to cage-free and singlehandedly bring prices down for consumers.
“The cost is going to come down,” Josh Balk, senior food policy director for the Humane Society of the United States, said in April. “These production practices are going to gain in efficiency because producers are going to understand even better how to do it.”
Photo credit: Paul Delmont