Pressure from animal rights groups and growing consumer concern for humane animal husbandry practices have many of the nation’s leading grocery chains scrambling to sell only cage-free eggs … eventually.
Texas grocery giant H-E-B is among the latest to join the cage-free movement, pledging on its website to move toward selling only cage-free eggs by 2025, provided there’s an adequate supply, sufficient consumer demand, and pricing that’s affordable for customers. The company took action after The Humane Society of the United States threatened to run an ad deploring it for not committing to cage-free eggs.
H-E-B joins Walmart, the nation’s largest grocery chain, to begin the shift to cage free, which means hens will be able to walk, spread their wings, and lay their eggs in nests. Currently, the vast majority of egg-laying hens (aka layers) are confined to battery cages where, on average, they live out their short lives on less space than a single sheet of letter-sized paper, according to The Humane Society.
Still, cage free doesn’t ensure cruelty free. While cage-free hens generally lead significantly better lives than those confined to cages, like caged hens they have part of their beaks burned off and they may never go outside. That privilege is reserved for free-range (aka pasture-raised) chickens, which account for less than 1% of chickens nationwide, according to the National Chicken Council.
Along with Walmart and H-E-B, Kroger (the nation’s largest traditional grocery chain), Albertson’s, SUPERVALU, Trader Joe’s, Winn-Dixie, and others are all flocking to the cage-free movement. Already, all eggs sold at Whole Foods Market, which positions itself as the most ethical of grocers, are cage free, according to its website. Also, the chain uses only cage-free eggs in all of its prepared foods and baked goods.
The distant 2025 deadline will give egg farmers time to transition from cramped battery cages to open-air space for laying hens. As of September 2015, the total US cage-free flock (some 23.6 million hens) accounted for just 8.6% of the 288 million layers in the nation, according to the American Egg Board. As the supply of cage-free eggs grows, the price should come down: The most recent figures from the Department of Agriculture put the price for a dozen white cage-free eggs at $2.99, with the price of a dozen large white eggs at $1.29.
Along with supermarket chains, some restaurants, including Burger King, food service providers, and food manufacturers are pledging to go cage free.
Industry Impact: As more grocers commit to selling only cage-free eggs, retailers will have to work with suppliers to ensure an adequate supply at a cost that’s palatable to consumers.
Alexandra Biesada shops every day, whether she wants to or not, and pines for the days when it was strictly a recreational activity. She has covered the retail beat for Hoover’s since 2001. Follow her on Twitter.