Cage free eggs

The insanely complicated logistics of cage-free eggs for all

You may not have noticed while you were scarfing your avocado toast, but 2015 was the year of the egg, at least as far as the food industry was concerned.

An Avian flu outbreak briefly sent egg prices soaring. Meanwhile, McDonald’s, the world’s largest fast food chain and one of the biggest egg buyers anywhere, announced it would ditch its conventionally farmed eggs and sell nothing but cage-free eggs in all of its US and Canadian restaurants. By the end of the year, just about every major fast food chain and a handful of multinational food companies had followed suit, including Subway, Starbucks, Nestle and most recently Wendy’s.

But these announcements had a catch. The companies said the switch to cage-free would take anywhere from five years to a decade to complete. How could it possibly take ten years to let a bunch of chickens out of their cages?

As it turns out, going cage-free requires much more planning, money, and logistical engineering than the seemingly simple notion of setting some hens free would suggest. Ironically, this massive supply chain overhaul stems from consumer demand to return to the egg-producing practices of our pre-industrial past, but without undoing all the positive benefits of scale, affordability, and safety that were achieved through industrialization.

It actually took farmers a really long time to figure out how to put the bird in the cage—and it’s going to take a while to figure out how to get it back out.

Think of it less like a romp through green fields surrounded by happy, clucking hens and more like a decade-long design challenge with no single rulebook and a lot of breakfast plates at stake.

To understand how we got here, let’s do some time traveling. Back in the 1920s, chicken egg farmers were pretty small-scale operations. Even the big guys only had about 400, maybe 500, hens, and these birds all just waddled around in the dirt, coo-cooing and laying eggs everywhere. People then had to collect those eggs by hand and clean them manually. Sometimes animals would attack the chickens in the night. Sometimes they attacked each other. Sometimes they stepped in their own waste and got sick, or they hung around with other animals or birds and got sick. Quite a few of them died. Life as a chicken has its risks.

So farmers learned how to mitigate those risks. They perfected hen nutrition. They built enclosures, and they invented all kinds of chicken meds. They even came up with standards for how bright the lighting in a hen house should be, which industry experts still hilariously describe as being just bright enough for a farmer to squat down and read a newspaper at bird height (to think of all those squatting farmers, reading newspapers!).

Most importantly, in the 1950s, they started housing hens in little cubbies made of chicken wire – a practice that took off in California because it was an insta-fix for various inefficiencies. With hens now in cages, farmers could house about one-third to two-thirds as many birds in a single hen house. Hens walked on raised floors so they weren’t stepping in their own waste. They couldn’t peck each other as much and they were protected from other animals. Mortality went down.

Over the years, cage systems have evolved in various ways. But they remain the single most important innovation in egg production because they’ve turned what was once a cottage industry into a global commodity. Without caged birds, it’s entirely possible that the Egg McMuffin itself may never have existed and would certainly not be as globally accessible—and affordable—as it is today.

Cage free eggs2The outcry against cages

Rose Acre Farms, one of the biggest egg producers in the US, has about 25 million laying hens. In 2014, the US as a whole produced nearly 100 billion eggs, totaling $10.2 billion in revenue. This kind of mass production depends on cages. With those tiny wire boxes, farmers can micromanage everything about a bird’s life. They can even help automate egg collection by forcing the bird to lay its eggs directly into a funnel that drops down into a collection area.

But keeping a living thing in a metal cage so small that it can’t move its wings or stand up for the duration of its short life has raised inevitable questions about animal suffering and welfare. It’s no longer enough to churn out cheap eggs. Especially in recent years, consumers have increasingly demanded to know more about their food’s origins—where it’s from, how it was raised, and under what conditions.

And many are finding the lives of caged chickens too rough to stomach. Pictures of molting, sickly birds flooded the Internet. The egg, once the epitome of the wholesome American breakfast and the key ingredient of delicate French pastries, became a flashpoint of criticism for industries that rely on living animals in order to produce a commodity.

That distaste has spurred increased demand for what’s still known in the industry as specialty eggs – most of all “cage-free,” which first started popping up at places like Whole Foods, and have since made their steady way into the mainstream. Yet even as the pressure for farmers to convert to cage-free began building, few wanted to give up the caged system.

Cage-free systems require more labour and less control, which together can cost a farmer a lot of extra money. But the biggest hindrance to going cage-free is the imperative of efficiency—meeting today’s huge demand for eggs with yesterday’s techniques.

Back when birds weren’t in cages, farmers produced a fraction as many eggs. And the cage-free systems of today only house about a third to two-thirds as many birds as a conventional caging system. Cage-free is, by design, less efficient than the conventional cage. And since most agricultural innovation has been focused on improving the efficiency of the cage, large scale farmers today don’t feel like they have access to a system they trust that will allow chickens more living space while still keeping production up and mortality down on the scale of traditional caged systems.

In order to do cage-free properly, farmers have to reduce their flock numbers, which means a decrease in production and an increase in price.

“In the industry as a whole, people felt like they were doing the right thing (with conventional cages),” says Rick Brown, a market analyst who’s been following the egg industry for 30 years. “We got away from cage-free in the 50’s for a whole host of reasons. People felt that the cages were better for the birds.”

But in 2015, egg suppliers were left with little choice. Big Food companies, in all their pre-cooked, kids’ meal, drive-thru glory, began announcing one after the other that they would stop using eggs from chickens kept in conventional cages and only buy from farmers who raise cage-free hens.

The surge in demand seems likely to force fundamental changes in how the egg industry operates. McDonald’s alone buys up two billion eggs a year for its US restaurants alone.

“You’re talking about a scale that is completely unprecedented,” says Sam Oches, who edits QSR, a trade publication covering the fast food industry. “At the end of the day, these decisions are built around consumer demand.”

Pressure to convert

Now, egg suppliers are left with an obvious choice: meet the growing demand for cage-free eggs or lose your biggest customers. So, suppliers are caving. They didn’t like it, but if it’s what their customers wanted, they’d do it. “Now Rose Acre Farms is converting its operations to cage-free, a switch that all the major suppliers are likely to make, if they’re not in the process of doing so already.

This means that in the future, the pasteurized liquid egg product fast food restaurants serve up at drive-thru’s across the US will come from the same chickens that pop out those fancy $6 egg cartons sitting in your Instacart.

McDonald’s and a handful of its fast food peers have given their vendors until 2025, which seems like a luxurious amount of time to make the change. That’s until you consider the daunting design and tech challenges that lay ahead for the industry.

For starters, birds that live in cages can’t be transferred to a cage-free environment halfway through their lives. Farmers have to start with a new generation of chickens. “The chicken itself has to learn how to be in the environment and deal with things that they may not be used to in a caged environment,” says Jonathan Spurway of Rembrandt Foods, the third-largest egg supplier in the US.

When a hen is born and raised in a cage, her immune system depends on limited direct contact with other birds, and she falls into a pecking order that is determined in part by the cages. If you placed that hen in a cage-free house, she might get attacked by other hens above her in the pecking order, or her body might not be able to fend off a host of new vectors from other birds.

So even as Rembrandt is in the process of switching over its facilities, it’s looking at breeding a massive new generation of chickens. For the entire industry, that’s a huge number of birds. Right now, the US market has about 300 million laying hens, and only about eight percent of them are cage-free….. Read the full article