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Are Cage-Free Eggs Actually More Ethical?

More often than not, consumer demand dictates market conditions. Today’s consumers are more interested in eating cleaner, healthier foods, and that’s not just from a nutrition perspective. This focus on healthier foods translates outside the realm of health: the socio-economic impact of food choices also weighs heavily on consumers’ minds, and helps explain the recent trend of food companies switching to cage-free eggs.

Back in February, Jennette wrote about one of the major trends hitting foodservice and retailers in 2015 and 2016: cage-free eggs. From fast-food giants like McDonald’s and Wendy’s to retailers like Target and Walmart to manufacturer’s like Kellogg and Rembrandt Foods, players across the food industry were working with their suppliers to ensure that they could provide cage-free eggs within the next ten years. And this trend is just continuing: Publix released its plans to go cage-free and I’m sure others will continue to issue policies as they reach agreements with suppliers.

However, is this push to cage-free really that helpful to the hens it is supposed to protect? According to a recent New York Times article published on the web, perhaps consumers have been a bit too optimistic and hopeful with their push for cage-free eggs. From the article:

“A big change is underway. But raising a hen in a ‘cage free’ environment doesn’t mean it will live in a bucolic setting, pecking for bugs in a great green field… Instead, the most common large-scale cage-free alternatives are so-called aviaries in which hens roost in close quarters, with row upon row stacked high in enormous barns. A critical difference is that they can move around. And in many aviaries, hens have access to outdoor space, though it is often small and hard to reach.”

The article goes on to point out a number of major health issues raised with these sorts of aviaries. Hen mortality is higher in cage-free systems, because when hens move around more freely, it is easier for them to spread germs, according to a report from The Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply. The report also found hens in cage-free aviaries were also more aggressive than in conventional battery-cage systems, and conditions for workers and the environment were also worse

To be fair, this is the first report of its kind that I’ve seen, but it just goes to show that the food supply chain is an incredibly complex beast. What started as a shift in consumer demand thanks to ethical concerns may actually end up hurting more than helping. You can be sure we’ll keep an eye on follow-up reports concerning the matter.