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Supermarkets Are The 'Final Frontier' Of The Cage-Free Egg Movement

Activists won over fast food chains, but grocery stores may be a bigger challenge.

The movement by major food companies to end the use of eggs laid by caged hens hit critical mass this year. 

It began when McDonald's, which uses 2 billion eggs each year in the U.S. alone, pledged in September to eliminate eggs laid by hens held in cramped wire cages from its supply chain by 2025.

Others quickly followed suit. In the last two weeks alone, Nestlé and Subway -- the world's largest food producer and fast food chain, respectively -- announced hard deadlines by which they will convert their supplies.

But changing the habits of corporate food giants isn't the holy grail for animal welfare activists. The real target hits much closer to home. 

"It's when we are going to start seeing change at the supermarkets," David Coman-Hidy, executive director at the animal welfare nonprofit The Humane League, told The Huffington Post by phone on Sunday. "The final frontier is for retailers to catch up to consumer sentiment."

Hens that lay eggs in cramped battery cages live in squalor, unable to spread their wings or even walk around. Such factory farm techniques have been banned in the European Union since 2012, but are used to produce the vast majority of eggs sold in the United States. Of the nearly 7.5 billion eggs laid in the U.S. in September, just 4.5 percent were from cage-free hens, according to data from the industry group United Egg Producers.

The push, then, for corporate food behemoths to adopt cage-free eggs has been largely symbolic.  

“These commitments from players like McDonald’s or Nestlé are really more about signaling to the egg industry that it’s time to retrofit all the barns and switch over production to cage-free eggs,” David Coman-Hidy, executive director at the animal welfare nonprofit Human League, told The Huffington Post by phone on Sunday. “That time has come.”

Coman-Hidy said the next step for the cage-free movement will be lobbying supermarket chains to eliminate all but cage-free eggs from their shelves.

“People are against cages and overwhelmingly vote to ban them when given a choice,” Coman-Hidy said. “It’s time for supermarkets to reflect that.”

But that change, as with any other in the egg industry, will take time.

“We’re hoping to see change in the coming year or two,” Coman-Hidy said. “In a big way.”

The egg industry isn't taking the push for cage-free eggs lightly.

The movement came after a national egg shortage last summer that resulted from the country's worst avian flu outbreak in history. By July, more than 48 million birds died in a dozen states. 

In an open letter to newspaper editors published last week, the National Association of Egg Farmers, an industry group, called the idea that cage-free farms provide better lives to hens "the greatest fraud of 2015."

"This is simply untrue and any person who watches chickens roaming about on the ground will see the reasons why," the organization wrote in the letter, sent to editors of major metropolitan newspapers in the United Kingdom and United States. "Food companies are reacting to the pressure from the misinformation from animal activists that more space means better conditions."

To be sure, ridding grocers of eggs from caged hens will be more difficult than removing the eggs from certain food chains. Whereas food providers buy a specific type of egg in bulk as ingredients on their menus, supermarkets can offer choice. 

"They have cage-free, conventional, omega-enriched," Charlie Arnot, chief executive of the industry-funded group Center for Food Integrity, told HuffPost by phone on Monday. "The marketplace will dictate how much of the case is actually consumed by cage-free farms."

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