Cage-Free-Egg Laws Spur Cage Match Between States

Shutterstock

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

When California and Massachusetts enacted laws requiring that eggs produced and sold there be raised cage-free, 13 states including some of the nation’s largest egg producers sued.

This story was originally published by Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts, and was written by Rebecca Beitsch.

Dennis Bowden has raised chickens in the town of Waldoboro, Maine, nearly his whole life. For more than 40 years, he raised his chickens in cages. Then four years ago, when he turned 65, he cut down his flock and went cage-free.

The decision to switch was Bowden’s alone, but around the country many politicians have firmly taken sides on the issue of penning hens, hoping either to require egg producers to go cage-free or to protect conventional producers by mandating that stores stock their eggs.

Eggs are a staple of the American diet, with 88 billion table eggs produced in 2016. Egg consumption is growing, and the quality of life of the hens that lay the eggs has become an issue not just for animal welfare groups but also for many consumers. Although cage-free hens represent 16 percent of U.S. chickens, their share of the flock grew by a third from 2016 to 2017, and the egg industry and its supporters are paying close attention.

When California and Massachusetts enacted laws requiring that eggs produced and sold there be raised cage-free, 13 states including some of the nation’s largest egg producers sued, saying the laws violated the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Iowa, the top egg-producing state in the country, went further and enacted a law to protect its conventional, caged-chicken industry. The state now requires any grocer participating in the federal food program for low-income mothers, infants and children, known as WIC, to sell conventional eggs alongside cage-free options.

And last week, U.S. Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican, introduced an amendment to the farm bill that would block states from regulating agricultural products that are also produced in other states—a clear shot at cage-free-egg laws.

(The Pew Charitable Trusts)

The tension comes as many restaurants and retailers say they are going cage-free — McDonald’s and Kellogg’s plan to do so by 2025, as does the grocery chain Kroger. And Ohio, Oregon and Washington have banned traditional cages, while this year, bills in Rhode Island and Michigan would require cage-free production and sales.

Conventional egg producers outside those states fear that as more egg-importing states enact such laws, they too will be required to go cage-free, costing them about $40 a bird to convert their facilities.

The Humane Society of the United States, which was behind the ballot measures approved in Massachusetts and California as well as the bill in Rhode Island, said that’s the goal.

"Some states are net importers; some are net exporters," said Josh Balk, vice president of farm animal protection with the organization. "What we hope to achieve is that there is no place for caged hens to be sold anywhere."

The Consumer Conundrum

Cage-free doesn’t mean chickens frolicking through pastures. The most common scenario is a big barn with thousands of chickens able to fly and move about freely, even if they are packed in. They may stay inside their entire lives. It’s not chicken utopia, Balk said, but it does give them space to do things chickens like to do—spread their wings, flutter around in the dirt, or just perch.

But having that many chickens cooped up in one space can be dangerous too. Pecking order is not just an expression —the birds seek to create a hierarchy among those they share a space with by pecking those beneath them. Bowden said he trims the beaks of his birds, something he likens to clipping one’s fingernails, so that the birds don’t hurt each other.

Producers who use cages say birds each have about the space of an 8-by-10-inch piece of paper but can move around alongside six or seven other chicken cage-mates, according to a spokesman for the National Association of Egg Farmers, Ken Klippen. That keeps them from pecking each other as much and from pecking at their own feces.

Iowa's move to protect conventional egg producers was supported by the industry—Klippen said farmers in other states may consider pushing similar legislation. But the bill was narrowed considerably after grocers expressed concern, and lawmakers eventually limited the restrictions to grocers that serve the more than 60,000 WIC participants.

"We want the market to dictate and the consumers' choice to dictate what you put on the shelf," said Michelle Hurd, president of the Iowa Grocery Industry Association. "We were concerned it sets a precedent for industry to use the law to force stores to carry their type of product." Consumers, however, can present a conundrum.

Cage-free-egg laws appear to be popular with consumers—at least the ones who voted for them. Ballot measures were approved by wide margins in California, with 64 percent of the vote, and in Massachusetts, with 78 percent. This happened despite consumers in both states overwhelmingly buying conventional eggs.

"I call it a vote by paradox," said Jayson Lusk, an agricultural economist at Purdue University in Indiana who has studied the effects of the California law.

"These cage-free eggs were available in the grocery store, and, at the time, less than 10 percent of market share was cage-free. Why people banned something they were routinely buying in a grocery store, I don’t know," he said. "It does act something like an unfunded mandate. We have asked farmers to provide something that we as consumers have not funded by buying that product."

Only California’s law has been fully phased in—the laws typically give farmers a few years to convert from cages—so the impacts of its law have been the most widely studied.

Lusk estimated that the number of eggs produced in the state since the law was enacted was a third lower than it otherwise would have been. In response, stores in the state initially imported more eggs from other states. Shortly after the new law took effect, the price of eggs increased by more than a third, though by fall 2016, Lusk estimated that prices were 9 percent higher than they would have been without the law.

But some economists doubt the egg industry can produce enough cage-free eggs to meet future demand spurred by state mandates and retailer pledges. To do so, three-quarters of the nation’s 320 million birds would have to go cage-free.

At the same time, some egg producers have paused plans to expand cage-free production because their products weren't being grabbed off store shelves.

Happier Hens, Harder-Working Farmers

Cage-free eggs aren’t just more expensive because farmers must convert their facilities. They require more work from farmers too.

When Bowden in Maine went cage-free, he went from a flock of more than 33,000 hens down to 3,000. But he had to increase his employees from five to eight just to help with the extra work taking care of the chickens.

“The majority of them like the nest box ’cause it’s darker and more private,” Bowden said. “They get in and like setting on their eggs. But some like making nests on the floor and others don’t give a damn and just lay eggs wherever they may be—on the window sill, all kinds of places like that.”

So now they have to collect eggs thrice a day instead of just once, and the shells get dirtier, so it takes more work to clean them.

Bowden didn’t go cage-free for the chickens’ sake. The family farm was cage-free and even sometimes had chickens in the pasture before they bought cages in 1969. When those were at the end of their useful life and Bowden was ready to slow operations down a bit, he converted the old barns by adding nest boxes he built himself.

But he does think his chickens are happier.

“It’s pretty hard to gauge,” he said. “We can’t really get them to vote.” But they are certainly making use of the space. They can move around, spread their wings—they have “free choice,” he said. And egg production per hen, which farmers say is perhaps the best indicator of chicken satisfaction, is the same.

Despite being happy with the switch, Bowden doesn’t think cage-free should be mandatory.

“I think it should be an issue of the person votes when they buy the eggs,” he said. “Does he want to pay $5 a dozen for eggs or $2 a dozen? Poor people can’t afford to buy eggs if they’re all cage-free.”

That’s what legislators in Iowa argued too.

“It’s not just about farmers versus animal rights,” said Iowa state Rep. Lee Hein, a Republican who chairs the Agriculture Committee. “It’s about people having access to affordable protein.”

Balk, with the Humane Society, said it’s insulting to imply that low-income people care less about animal welfare than the wealthy. He compared the group’s work to banning child labor, saying he was confident California’s and Massachusetts’ laws would withstand their court battles.

“No producer is mandated to sell in any state,” he said. “We’re just saying if you want to sell your products in Massachusetts, for example, you need to follow these minimum standards.”

NEXT STORY: Public Spaces and Local Democracy

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.