The Tidal Wave Shift Toward Cage-Free Eggs

Featured article in the Spring 2017 Issue of Nutrition Close-Up; written by Karen Buch, RDN, LDN


The U.S. egg industry is a thriving $10 billion dollar a year industry, producing about 75 billion eggs annually. Sixty percent of the eggs produced are used directly by consumers while remaining eggs are used by the foodservice industry or turned into egg-containing products. The average American consumes 268 eggs a year.1

More than 160 major companies have announced that they will shift to cage-free eggs, most by the year 2025, including McDonald’s, Subway, Wendy’s, Disney, Campbell Soup, Mondel?z International, ConAgra, Starbucks, Kellogg, General Mills, Nestle, Kroger, Walmart, Albertsons and dozens of other grocery retail chains. Some industry experts predict 45 percent of all eggs produced in the U.S. may be cage free within the next 10 years.

Why the Shift to Cage-Free?
Many of today’s consumers want to know more about their food than ever before, including where it comes from, how it was raised and under what conditions. In addition, they are willing to convey expectations and “cast votes” through their purchasing decisions and how they choose to spend their food dollars. As of March 2016, consumer demand for cage-free eggs represented just 5.5 percent of all eggs purchased.2 Concerns for animal welfare and food safety are commonly cited as reasons behind the trend.3 But what does the scientific research show? A 2015 study found cumulative hen mortality in cage-free housing was approximately double that of conventional and enriched colony housing.4

Animal Welfare
In the 1920s and 1930s, hens were largely raised in backyard farming systems with manual processes for egg collection and cleaning. Since then, the commercial egg industry has taken great strides to improve living conditions and overall health of hens resulting in larger, more productive flocks. In the 1940s, scientists in California determined use of indoor caging systems produced healthier hens with decreased mortality rates. In response, farms across the country built new facilities with cage-style housing.1 Today, concerns about the impact of conventional cage-confinement on animal welfare have prompted a closer look at how to improve the living space for hens to allow for more natural bird behaviors (such as perching, scratching, dust bathing and nesting) while maintaining the safety and sustainability of the flocks.

Food Safety
During the past 50 years, the U.S. egg industry has achieved significant advances in resistance to disease through selective breeding, reinforced by good sanitation and vaccination. Preventing food-borne illness related to egg consumption is a continuing priority for egg farmers. However, determining the impact of hen housing on egg safety and hen health is complex due to the variables involved.5 Risk of bacterial contamination among eggs laid in cages versus cage-free environments is unclear. Some studies suggest cage-free eggs offer reduced risk,6,7 while other published research contradicts this notion.4,8,9,10

Will Cage-Free Eggs Cost Consumers More?
The Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply estimates it will cost a farmer 36 percent more to run a cage-free farm. Increased feed costs are also anticipated due to the increased energy needs of more mobile cage-free hens. Inevitably, these increased production costs are expected to lead to higher consumer prices for eggs and processed foods made with eggs, particularly if conventional egg farming ceases to exist in the future. On the positive side, should this occur, eggs will remain one of the most affordable natural sources of protein available.

How Do Housing Systems for Egg-Laying Hens Compare?
American egg farmers are committed to producing fresh, high-quality eggs and are committed to the health and well-being of their hens. Housing systems today vary, but all ensure the hens are provided with adequate space, nutritious feed, clean water, light and fresh air. The following handout compares cage-free with various other housing systems. Find it on the ENC website here.



1. United States Department of Agriculture. World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates. February 9, 2017. ISSN: 1554-9089
2. 2016 USDA National Retail Report; Friday July 8 (average pricing comparisons within continental United States)
3. A Momentous Change is Underway in the Egg Case. United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). USDA Blog. June 27, 2016.
4. Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply (CSES long-term study 2015). Final research results report.
5. Holt, P.S., R.H. Davies, J. Dewulf, R.K. Gast, J.K. Huwe, D.R. Jones, D. Wealtman, and K.R. Willian. 2011. The impact of different housing systems on egg safety and quality. Poult. Sci. 90:251–262.
6. D.R. Jones, J. Guard, R.K. Gast, R.J. Buhr, P.J. Fedorka-Cray, Z. Abdo, J.R. Plumblee, D.V. Bourassa, N.A. Cox, L.L. Rigsby, C.I. Robison, P. Regmi, and D.M. Karcher. Influence of commercial laying hen housing systems on the incidence and identification of Salmonella and Campylobacter. Poultry Science 2016 95: 1116-1124.
7. Kinde H., Read D.H., Chin R.P., Bickford A.A., Walker R.L., Ardans A., Breitmeyer R.E., Willoughby D., Little H.E., Kerr D., Gardner I.A. 1996 b. Salmonella enteritidis, phage type 4 infection in a commercial layer flock in Southern California: Bacteriological and epidemiologic findings. Avian Dis. 40:665–671.
8. Schaar U., Kaleta E.F., Baumbach B. 1997. Comparative studies on the prevalence of Salmonella enteritidis and Salmonella typhimurium in laying chickens maintained in batteries or on floor using bacteriological isolation techniques and two commercially available ELISA kits for serological monitoring. Tierarztl. Prax. 25:451–459.
9. Mollenhorst H., van Woudenbergh C.J., Bokkers E.G.M., de Boer I.J.M. 2005. Risk factors for Salmonella enteritidis infections in laying hens. Poult. Sci. 84:1308–1313.
10. USDA/APHIS. 2000a. NAHMS Layers ’99 Salmonella enterica serotype Enteritidis in table egg layers in the U.S. Accessed June 7, 2010. http:// Salmonella.pdf

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