Cage-free Eggs: Who Let the Hens Out?

The logistics of getting cage-free eggs from hens are far from eggcelent.

No one likes to think about another living being having a miserable life, so when the plight of hens being routinely kept in cramped quarters and reduced to nothing more than egg-laying robots gained widespread attention, people started calling for changes to hen-rearing practices.

This has resulted in a surge in demand for cage-free eggs, and it’s not just a small segment of PETA devotees who are eschewing eggs from caged hens. When McDonald’s, which buys two million eggs each year just for its American restaurants, announces a switch to cage-free eggs, it’s time to sit up and pay attention.

Right now, there are about 300 million laying hens in the American market, and less than ten percent of them can claim to be cage-free. Although freeing the hens from their cages seems like a reasonable solution, the reality is far more complicated than merely unlocking the gates; it’s going to take a huge logistical overhaul to get the job done.

Cages Boost Efficiency, but at What Cost?
Interestingly, cage use came about in the first place in large part to benefit the hens. When hens used to roam freely on farms and eggs were a cottage industry, hens faced attacks from each other as well as preying animals. Hens are violent by nature and the weak ones didn’t stand much chance of survival. Disease spread easily among them, and it simply made sense to place them in a more controlled environment.

Businesses Feeling the Pressure to go Cage-free
Few people would say that the calls for more humane conditions for hens are unwarranted, but it is going to take quite some time – not to mention a lot of money – before sweeping changes can be instituted, and everyone will take a financial hit, from big corporations to the average grocery shopper.

Logistics of Egg-laying
Now that Big Food companies are on board, farmers are feeling the pressure to drop conventional cages, which could well become obsolete. It’s a change that can’t happen overnight; today’s hens simply aren’t cut out for life outside of the bars, so it will have to begin with a new generation of chickens. Even McDonald’s has said not to expect a full switchover until 2025.

Nevertheless, eggs are an inelastic commodity that people will buy—even when the price goes up. It might mean a few extra dollars in the monthly grocery budget for consumers, but for big companies like McDonald’s, the cost of setting the hens free could well prove to be massive.