Score another win for the nation’s hens.
Fast-casual food chain Shake Shack on Monday joined the ever-growing list of major businesses that have announced plans to switch to using cage-free eggs.
The chain's company-owned locations will make the transition to cage-free eggs by the end of next year, according to an announcement from animal advocacy group the Humane League. The chain has 66 locations throughout the world. Taco Bell announced a similarly accelerated transition last month and committed to all its stores using cage-free eggs by December 2016.
Other companies switching to cage-free eggs are expected to take a bit longer to follow through on their announcements. Fast-food giant McDonald’s, as well as Dunkin’ Donuts, Qdoba and Jack in the Box, say the planned transition will take a decade.
Despite the delay in implementation, Humane League executive director David Coman-Hidy said he feels “very optimistic” about how many food chains and major egg buyers, such as food service providers Aramark and Compass Group, have committed to changing their policies.
“Ultimately it’s about signaling to the egg industry that the writing is on the wall at this point,” Coman-Hidy told The Huffington Post. “I think we’re going to see change continue more rapidly than we’re expecting even now.”
So, if the writing is on the wall, why is it taking so long for some companies to make the switch?
Put bluntly, there is significant demand from consumers asking for better treatment of farm animals, but the supply still has a long way to go to catch up.
Only 8.6 percent of the commercial egg-laying hens in the country live in cage-free environments, according to the latest data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Though this is a dramatic increase from the same time last year, the overwhelming majority of hens are still being held in battery cages that are barely larger than they are.
Maro Ibarburu, an associate scientist and business analyst at Iowa State University’s Egg Industry Center, said it will take many egg suppliers more than a decade to switch to a cage-free system, partly because getting rid of battery cages is an expensive change for farmers to self-finance.
“This is not a trivial decision,” Ibarburu told HuffPost. “The farmer has to come up with the money to make the change and as far as I know there’s no help to make the transition.”
Another factor to the delay has been the patchwork legislative approach to the egg industry’s reliance on battery cages.
Only five states have so far passed any legislation banning or restricting the use of the cages. Among them is California, the only state that has banned the sale of eggs from caged hens. Animal welfare groups are pushing a ballot initiative in Massachusetts that would prohibit the sale of such eggs by 2022.
By comparison, the European Union approved a sweeping law banning battery cages in all its member countries in 1999. That law allowed egg producers 13 years to switch their systems over.
Often missing from the press releases from the likes of Shake Shack and Starbucks is that cage-free egg production systems come with their own problems -- and that “cage-free” is not synonymous with “free-range.”
Cage-free systems -- where hens are housed in an enclosed barn, not outdoors -- have a hen mortality rate more than double that of traditional systems, according to a three-year analysis released by University of California, Davis researchers earlier this year. Also, the eggs they produce are 30 to 40 percent more expensive than eggs produced through traditional systems.
While Joy Mench, a professor of animal science and one of the UC Davis researchers behind that study, argued that such concerns are not “insurmountable,” manufacturers still face a sharp learning curve in addressing the challenges cage-free systems present.
“Cage-free systems are much more complicated to manage,” Mench said. “We may not get some of these health concerns down to the level at which they occur in cages, but we can conduct research and the more experience producers gain with the systems, the more they will be reduced.”
Meanwhile, the progress on cage-free eggs also seems to be having a spillover effect animal welfare groups should also take heart in.
As more chains have gone cage-free, Coman-Hidy said, many are also adding more vegetarian options to their menus and phasing out their use of pork products from gestation crates, two other high-priority issues for groups like the Humane League.
After a banner year of almost nonstop movement on cage-free eggs, Coman-Hidy expects to see even more changes in coming years.
“We’re not just seeing momentum on this issue. We’re seeing momentum across the board,” he said. “When the average person learns about battery cages, they don’t want to support the farms that use them. No one wants to be behind McDonald’s on an animal cruelty issue.”
Joseph Erbentraut covers promising innovations and challenges in the areas of food and water. In addition, Erbentraut explores the evolving ways Americans are identifying and defining themselves. Tips? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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