The US egg industry is losing its fight to keep chickens in cages

Things are looking up!
Things are looking up!
Image: AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
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Things are starting to look up for the US’s flock of nearly 300 million egg-laying hens. Right now, approximately 96% of those chickens live in cages, with only about 67 to 86 square inches (170 to 220 cm) of usable space per bird. But that may soon change.

The United Egg Producers, the egg industry’s major trade group, said last week that it will not raise money to fight an upcoming 2016 Massachusetts ballot initiative that will require that farm animals—specifically egg-laying hens, breeding pigs, and veal calves—have enough space to stand up, turn around and fully stretch their limbs, Politico reported. Although Massachusetts is not a major egg-producing state, the initiative would also limit what can be sold there, meaning that an egg from a caged hen in Iowa could not be legally sold in Massachusetts, making the rule farther-reaching than a similar California initiative, passed in 2008. (A subsequent California law, though, closed that loophole.)

The UEP told Politico that it learned from its efforts to defeat the California ballot initiative: Despite spending $10 million and building a large coalition of trade groups, Californians overwhelmingly—about 64%—voted to pass the law. “We got clobbered,” UEP President Chad Gregory told Politico. (A UEP spokesperson told Quartz that its statements were mischaracterized by Politico but would not elaborate further. Politico told Quartz that it stands by its story.)

The tide seems to be turning against caged egg production. The Humane Society of the United States, a chief architect of these legislative initiatives, has also been working with private companies, getting them to take a stand on choosing cage-free eggs. While nearly a hundred—including the US’s three largest food service providers and major restaurant chains like Starbucks and Burger King—have made cage-free commitments in the past ten years, earlier this month they were joined by the industry’s behemoth: McDonald’s.

The Golden Arches announced that it would use only cage-free eggs by 2025 in its Canadian and US locations. This decision represented a “watershed moment” according to HSUS. That’s because McDonald’s buys about 2 billion eggs annually in the US alone. By comparison, Aramark, one of the major foodservice providers, buys 230 million. Although the UEP said the McDonald’s announcement was not part of its decision, Paul Shapiro of HSUS told Quartz that it “makes it clear that cage-free is the future of the egg industry.”

UEP has not entirely surrendered, though: It told Politico it will “educate lawmakers, voters and consumers,” and in a statement to Quartz said that it believes that “the proposal from HSUS is misguided and unnecessary” and that it “is still evaluating [its] options.”

Another, smaller, egg industry group, the National Association of Egg Farmers, told Politico and confirmed to Quartz, that it is stepping into the fracas. The National Pork Producers Council also continues to oppose the bill, though it told Quartz it has not yet determined what specific actions it will take. Both industries have cited the higher costs of raising animals without cages and say that, ultimately, it will be consumers that have to swallow those costs.

HSUS meanwhile, has no plans to back down or subdue its campaign in light of UEP’s decision. Shapiro told Quartz that the organization is planning a “full-court press,” and will mobilize all of its resources. ”We intend to leave nothing on the field.”