Food companies are switching to cage-free eggs, but does it make it any safer? Behind the ever-increasing trend there are various reasons driving it. To some, switching to cage-free eggs is the best way to protect food companies, consumers, and animals. However, do food companies and consumers really know what cage-free means?
Caged vs. Cage-free Eggs
According to The Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS) website, egg-laying hens in the food industry are typically confined in battery cages. The hens cannot spread their wings, and are denied their natural behaviors such as nesting, perching, and dust bathing.
The difference between cage and cage-free eggs is that egg-laying caged hens are confined on average to only 67 square inches of cage space. While cage-free hens are able to walk, spread their wings, and lay their eggs in nests—vital natural behaviors.
A report by HSUS on “Food Safety and Cage Egg Production” says cage production factors that increase Salmonella risk are: greater volume of fecal dust, rodent disease vectors, insect disease vectors, cage operations are difficult to disinfect, more gut colonization and shedding, and stress due to confinement.
Report states how Salmonella is the most commonly diagnosed foodborne bacterial illness in the U.S., costs the country billions, and is the leading cause of food-related deaths. “Because Salmonella can infect the ovaries of hens, eggs from infected birds can be laid with the bacteria prepackaged inside,” says report.
The push for humane treatment towards hens is quickly becoming the norm among the food industry because of the heightened risk caged eggs impose. Numerous fast food restaurants have already switched or are in the process of switching to cage-free in order to reduce the risk of Salmonella.
Is Cage-Free Really Safer?
Kenneth Anderson, PhD, professor and poultry extension specialist and director, North Carolina Layer Performance and Management Program, does not believe based on research that cage-free eggs are safer than caged eggs and that the push for cage-free eggs by food manufacturers is based on a premise that is false.
“The switch has nothing to do with safety but rather the perception that cage-free production is more humane,” says Dr. Anderson. “No matter what production system you choose to use there are management concerns with it.”
Dr. Anderson says there are reasons why we went from cage-free production that was prominent in the ’40s and ’50s to cage production because it “improved the welfare of the hen.”
In contrast to HSUS’ stand on cage-free, Dr. Anderson believes the hens were cleaner, healthier, and they were more productive.
“The issue with the cage-free setting and food safety is that it’s more related to the hens laying the eggs anywhere: in the nest, the litter, and they can defecate on them,” says Dr. Anderson. “In the cage setting, the eggs roll out from beneath the hen into an egg tray so you do not have that issue.”
Dr. Anderson’s research has shown there is no difference between the caged and cage-free eggs nutritionally and that consumers need to be given a choice and understand what the differences really are.
“Something that sounds better is not necessarily better for the bird,” he says. “Cage free hens are likely to have parasites, and if allowed outside, roundworms.”
Value of Being Humane
Josh Balk, senior food policy director, HSUS, says because the vast majority of Americans are opposed to the cruelty of animals, numerous states have banned caged egg production and food corporations have taken notice.
“We’ve worked with almost every major fast food chain, CPG company, food service company, and hospitality company in switching to cage-free eggs,” says Balk. “We are now seeing the groceries sector making the switch to exclusively using cage-free eggs like Costco, Target, Kroger, Safeway, Albertsons, and many others.”
Balk says the main reasons companies are switching to cage-free eggs are because of consumer sentiment towards the idea of farm animals being confined in cages so small they can barely move and companies do not want to be linked to animal cruelty.
“Companies want to shift their brands away from production practices that are out of step with the American sensibilities about how animals should be treated,” comments Balk.
Among the companies that have switched is fast food restaurant Wendy’s, recently announcing that by 2020 it will transition to 100 percent cage-free eggs in its U.S. and Canadian locations. “Animal welfare is a core part of our company’s role as a responsible corporate citizen,” says Liliana Esposito, Wendy’s chief communications officer. “We will continue to incorporate evolving best practices in the areas of animal handling and welfare into our supply chain requirements.”
Supermarkets like Trader Joe’s are also going cage-free. The company made a change in 2005 to have all Trader Joe’s brand eggs come from only cage-free hens. Since then, it has experienced a steady increase in sales of cage-free eggs. One of the company goals is to have all the eggs it sells in Western states (California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado) come from cage-free suppliers by 2020.
An Educated Consumer Knows Best
Education is key to ensuring consumers know what type of egg they want. Auburn University Food Systems Institute (AUFSI) conducts interdisciplinary research dedicated to improving the nation’s food system.
Patricia A. Curtis, PhD, professor and director at AUFSI, says the organization’s programs help provide information and training to “government regulators, industry, and entrepreneurs interested in starting a food business.” In addition, AUFSI also promotes teaching consumers in the general public.
Dr. Curtis believes it’s up to the consumer to decide if cage-free eggs are for them.
“We want to educate the consumers, help them understand the differences of cage and cage-free and make an educated decision on the type of egg they want,” she says.
Aquije is an editorial intern for Wiley U.S. B2B editorial division.