Grocery Giant Walmart Is Latest Chain to Make Cage-Free-Egg Pledge

The No. 1 retailer in the country is moving away from battery cages for laying hens.
(Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Apr 6, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Tove Danovich is a journalist based in Portland, Oregon.

The average laying hen in America has two possible lives laid out in front of her: She can be like 23.6 million hens (8.6 percent of the total egg-laying flock) and grow up in a cage-free facility or join the majority in a battery cage. While battery cages squish chickens together in stacks and rows of small enclosures, a cage-free system gets rid of the restrictions on their movement.

On Tuesday, Walmart announced its intentions to transition to cage-free eggs by 2025—following major suppliers such as McDonald’s and PepsiCo. “Our customers and associates count on Walmart and Sam’s Club to deliver on affordability and quality, while at the same time offering transparency into how their food is grown and raised,” Kathleen McLaughlin, Walmart’s chief sustainability officer, said in a statement. She also added that going cage-free is just an extension of those values. But is going cage-free giving consumers what they’re looking for?

With so much publicity around the living conditions hens endure in battery cages—the cramped spaces that cause weak bones, such high stress levels that farmers have to debeak chickens to keep them from pecking themselves or their neighbors, and even safety concerns such as a higher risk of salmonella—it makes sense consumers have insisted on something different. While cage-free systems give chickens more room than the letter-size space battery hens live their lives in, a cage-free hen isn’t exactly prancing around in an open field.

Animal welfare groups like the ASPCA have commended Walmart on its commitment to go cage-free. Others recognize that these changes, while better, don’t do nearly enough. “Most don’t have outdoor access, and the flocks are still too large,” Josh Balk, director of food policy for the Humane Society of the United States, told Harvest Public Media in 2015, “but it’s a dramatic improvement over being confined in a small cage for their entire life.”

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In cage-free hen houses, birds are still debeaked, and they’re unlikely to have outdoor access. Even “free-range” hens, per USDA guidelines, are only required to have “access to the outside,” without any standards for the quality of the space or the time spent there. Cage-free chickens have more space, but conditions are still cramped. United Egg Producers’ guidelines (which Walmart suppliers will be required to follow) specify that each hen must be allocated between one and one-and-a-half square feet of space in a cage-free facility. Battery cages often allow less than half a square foot per hen. Here’s the kicker: More hens die in cage-free systems than do in battery cages. One three-year study found that roughly 4 percent of birds die in a battery system versus nearly 12 percent of those in cage-free ones. Disease runs rampant in these open facilities, air quality is poor owing to the birds’ constant movement, which kicks up waste particles, and cannibalism is much more common. Also, cage-free hens produce fewer eggs while increasing operating costs by more than 20 percent.

Just because hens can move around in a cage-free system doesn’t mean they can socialize properly. The pecking order—a dominant hierarchy—can easily be established among smaller groups of chickens or those placed together in cages. But get thousands of chickens together in one room, and it is social chaos. (Not much different from humans trying to get to know people over a small dinner versus a crowded concert.) The social structure among a flock of chickens begins to break down after 30 birds, Jacquie Jacob, a poultry extension associate at the University of Kentucky, wrote. Sixty is the absolute maximum. Meanwhile, some cage-free henhouses hold more than 100,000 birds.

One of the reasons major suppliers are OK with increasing prices for the incremental improvements of cage-free is that it’s still relatively cheap. But after California’s Proposition 2 went into effect in January 2015, egg prices rose sharply. However, many blamed this on a combination of egg producers waiting until the last minute to upgrade their facilities—causing a shortage—and the concurrent effects of avian flu on the egg supply.

USDA data show conventional egg prices in California to be roughly double those of other regions. Retailers in the state still only pay $1.21 for a dozen extra large eggs—a huge difference from the $12 per dozen prices that are often asked by farmers selling truly pastured eggs at local markets. Overall, that price gap represents a difference in quality too.

Cage-free may be an improvement, but it is still commodity agriculture. There’s no reward—only greater expenses—for the individual farmer who wants to do things better. Hens are still kept in more or less unnatural environments. They still live their entire lives inside. They still die after only a few years when their egg production starts to decrease.

As more major suppliers switch to this system, consumers will continue getting exactly what they pay for.