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The cage-free scramble

Retailers and restaurants are lining up for eggs that come from cage-free chickens. How did the cause go from animal rights activists’ pet project to the mainstream?


Chickens at Brown’s Farm, which produces eggs for NestFresh, in Gonzales, Texas. Mary Kang/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The cage-free scramble

Chickens enjoy foraging through the grass, scratching the ground, and pecking for food. To keep clean, they roll in the dirt and kick and fluff dust through their feathers before getting up and shaking off like wet dogs. If a chicken higher on the pecking order comes along, the first may lose its spot in the dust bath—or risk a peck to the head. On warm days, hens bask in the sunlight, stretching out their legs and wings.

That’s life for a backyard chicken, but it’s an impossible standard for the egg industry. If all hens had that much space, the United States would require an area the size of Delaware to produce enough eggs to meet current demand. So how should big organizations treat chickens?

Many Americans say “cage-free.” We asked 20 college students in Iowa to offer their definitions of “cage-free.” Their responses: “hens roam around a yard … hens aren’t kept in cages and lay eggs naturally … a fenced-in courtyard … between 20 and 30 chickens frolicking in a large grassy area.” Eighteen of the students raised their hands to show they think cage-free is an ethical choice.

Those confused responses are great news for activists and groups demanding bans on eggs from caged chickens. Eight states have already passed bans, and more than 200 companies, including Walmart and McDonald’s, have pledged to go cage-free by 2025. Some activists say the laws do not go far enough. Others see the bans and pledges as an expensive form of virtue signaling that will raise egg prices.

What does cage-free actually mean, and how did the concept gain popularity? To answer those questions, we asked an agriculture professor about chicken housing, the president of a leading national egg producer about cage-free costs, and animal welfare advocates about the problems with conventional caging. We interviewed shoppers to learn their understandings.

Dordt University in Sioux Center, Iowa, is 6 miles from a facility that produces 400,000 pounds of eggs each day. In an office furnished with an axolotl aquarium and a poster featuring North America’s dairy cow breeds, Dordt professor John Olthoff leans forward, eager to talk about chickens. He says hens have a complicated social hierarchy. They can be aggressive. Put a large group of hens together and many will naturally try to assert their dominance. Olthoff chuckles as he describes how hens establish their pecking order: by pecking other hens. They may injure or even kill each other as they try to establish who’s boss. 

A curious free-range chicken on a small-scale organic farm.

A curious free-range chicken on a small-scale organic farm. Stocksy

The indoor caging system that animal welfare advocates see as inhumane grew out of poultry scientists’ research in the 1940s: The researchers saw caging as a way to minimize antagonistic behavior and guard against deadly diseases and predators. By the 1960s this “battery cage” system dominated the egg industry. It confines five to eight hens in one cage. Each hen has less space than a sheet of 8.5-by-11-inch printer paper, not enough to stretch its wings or even move around unobstructed.

Three miles from Dordt’s campus, J.T. Dean works as president of the Versova Management group, the third-largest egg producer in the country. Versova guides the business functions of a group of family-owned farms, including Center Fresh Egg Farm in Sioux Center. In one corner of the wood-paneled lobby sits an egg-shaped chair. Artistic photographs of eggs hang on the walls, and wooden eggs in a crate adorn the tabletop. Dean’s office features chicken-themed décor: chicken figurines, chicken artwork, and even a costume chicken mask.

Dean’s dad entered the egg industry when he was 16 and eventually joined management. He was the first nonfamily member to buy shares in Center Fresh. Dean remembers traveling with his dad during the summer, visiting egg farms around the Midwest. Twenty-three years ago, it cost $8 to build a hen space. The cost of building Center Fresh’s new cage-free facility (due to be operational next year) will be $80 million, or $53 per hen space. The new facility will house 1.5 million birds.

Center Fresh Farm has six buildings divided into 12 sections, each large enough to hold 300,000 hens. They sit behind a chain-link fence with a sign that reads “STOP - DO NOT ENTER - THIS IS A BIOSECURE AREA.” On the ends of the buildings, industrial fans blow out the stench of chicken manure. Shining tanks, towering over the prairie, store eggs in liquid form. The tallest can hold the 60,000 gallons of pre-cracked and mixed eggs Center Fresh produces each day.

On the other side of the tanks, tractors and bulldozers traverse the construction site. Workers are laying underground fittings for the cage-free buildings that will house hens beginning in 2022. The new facilities will meet United Egg Producers’ cage-free standards: 1 square foot of floor space per hen. The floor space isn’t much more than the current average, but additional vertical space allows hens access to perches, nesting boxes, and litter boxes for dust bathing.

The new facilities will meet United Egg Producers’ cage-free standards: 1 square foot of floor space per hen.

Center Fresh is building these facilities because they have contracts with big companies that have pledged to buy cage-free eggs. Dean’s father used to tell him: “If our customer wants us to produce eggs on the moon … we’ll do it as long as they can figure out how to pay us for it.” The cost of producing eggs from cage-free chickens is higher: It’s not yet clear how that will affect the price of a dozen eggs at the grocery store, or the health of children in poor families that have often used eggs as an inexpensive source of protein.

Dean sees the transition to cage-free primarily as a business decision, but others see it as an ethical responsibility. Josh Balk heads up the farm animal protection section of the Humane Society of the United States. He’s been a vegan for more than 20 years and co-founded a company that makes a plant-based egg alternative. Since 2008, the Humane Society has been a primary driver of the cage-free movement, and during that time the proportion of eggs produced in cage-free environments has risen from 1 percent to 23 percent.

Balk came to the Humane Society in 2005 with experience in the animal rights movement and a practical sense of what it takes to get big companies—restaurants, fast-food chains, grocers, hotels, and food manufacturers—to change. In an interview with Animal Charity Evaluators, he described the process: Start with emails and develop relationships with key executives through face-to-face meetings. Show them conditions inside large egg production facilities. Convince them to find a more humane alternative.

When persuasion doesn’t work, the Humane Society uses more forceful tactics. It owns shares in many publicly traded companies, so it can pressure them to take up the issue through shareholder resolutions. Especially reluctant companies might find themselves the subject of undercover investigations and the resulting public backlash.

Without large advertising budgets, animal welfare groups rely on major media outlets to get their message across. They also depend on funding from foundations such as Open Philanthropy, which in the breakthrough year of 2016 (see timeline) gave $3 million to cage-free causes.

Both the Humane Society and Open Philanthropy say it’s hard to get the first company in a sector to sign on, but once a sector leader does, its competitors feel pressure to follow. McDonald’s, for example, leads the fast-food sector. Corporate action then emboldens state lawmakers to pass legislation. Currently, California, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Oregon, Washington, Michigan, Colorado, and Utah have banned the use of cages.

Open Philanthropy says the cage-free movement has been successful because some radical animal rights groups agreed to join the Humane Society’s drive to eliminate battery cages—but for them, it’s only a first step. Activists associated with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) have crammed themselves in cages, worn costumes, and even infiltrated companies to obtain photos and videos of the conditions inside both cage and cage-free facilities. They do this out of a conviction that humans should never use animals for any reason.

A 2016 New York Times article showcased a video that Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) released to expose the conditions of cage-free barns. Dead chickens lay on the floor. Hens attacked each other. One bird, missing most of its feathers, was covered in feces and struggled to move. A headless hen rotted on the barn floor. The Times quoted DxE’s Wayne Hsiung: “Consumers have an idyllic vision of what cage-free farming looks like. … They need to be shown the truth, which is that cage-free is far from humane.”

That’s no surprise to egg producer Dean and agriculture professor Olthoff. They cite a Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply study that tagged cage-free facilities with a mortality rate twice that of conventional ones. Yet many consumers want to eat ethically and think cage-free is one way to satisfy that desire. They are unaware of the dangers of cage-free living and often don’t even know what the term means.

Chickens in a cage-free egg facility in North Manchester, Ind.

Chickens in a cage-free egg facility in North Manchester, Ind. AJ Mast/The New York Times/Red​ux

We asked shoppers in Sioux Center for their thoughts about eggs. Becky Drissell buys them locally: “This way I have a sense of how the chickens are actually treated, because it’s a place that I can see, it’s a person I can actually talk to.” When she can’t buy local eggs, she chooses cage-free: “The advertising makes it look really wonderful. … I try to buy something that looks as idyllic as possible.” Drissell knows the labeling could be misleading.

Angela Dykstra was excited to see eggs for sale at the local farmers market. They reminded her of collecting eggs from her grandmother’s chicken coop as a child: “Back then no one cared if they were free-range. That was just the normal way of raising chickens.” Now, Dykstra buys eggs from a local grocery store. She looks for sales but says she often buys cage-free eggs because nutrition is important to her.

To see the official distinctions, we checked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It defines cage-free eggs as those “produced by hens housed in a building, room, or enclosed area that allows for unlimited access to food, water, and provides the freedom to roam within the area during the laying cycle.” Cage-free chickens normally spend their lives indoors.

As caretakers of creation, we are responsible for the animals under our care.

The USDA defines free-range eggs as those “produced by hens housed in a building, room, or area that allows for unlimited access to food, water, and continuous access to the outdoors during their laying cycle.” Free-range chickens can go outside anytime. They may not have a lot of room in which to move around, though.

Dordt professor Olthoff says Christians are right to be concerned about animal welfare: Both battery cages and cage-free systems have problems. He says we need to consider the big picture: that as caretakers of creation, we are responsible for the animals under our care. That means we should understand their natural processes, such as pecking, and form systems that take those into account.

Olthoff says better solutions exist, including a system called “enhanced colony.” It houses a group of chickens in one large cage. That allows them to develop a natural hierarchy, and cuts down on the chaos of uncaged systems. State laws and corporate pledges, though, eliminate cages of all types, so “enhanced colony” is currently a no-go.

Versova president Dean wishes people had a better understanding of agriculture and how complex the issues are: “I don’t sit back here and twiddle my mustache and mwahaha, you know. I mean, we’re trying to produce food. Economical food. I love the fact that we touch so many food plates every day. I love being in food production. … Every single day I think about how to do better.”

An organic cage-free poul​try farm in Lancaster County, Pa.​

An organic cage-free poul​try farm in Lancaster County, Pa.​ Christopher Lamarca/Redux

Cage-Free Movement Timeline

Pre-2011

Underground videos and direct action.

2011-2014

Movement for a federal law prohibiting battery cages falls apart.

2015

California’s Proposition 2 takes effect. Aramark, which services college cafeterias, establishes a cage-free policy. Costco pledges to go cage-free. McDonald’s pledges to go cage-free in North America.

2016

Massachusetts passes a cage-free law. Safeway, Kroger, Albert­sons, Walmart, and Sodexo pledge to go cage-free.

2018-2021

Rhode Island, Washington, Oregon, Michigan, Colorado, and Utah pass cage-free laws.

2022

Massachusetts and California (Proposition 12) cage-free laws scheduled to go into effect.

2024

Oregon, Washington, and Michigan laws scheduled to go into effect.

2025

Utah and Colorado laws scheduled to go into effect.

2026

Rhode Island law scheduled to go into effect.

—Chloe Baker, Grace Kenyon, and Stephanie Morton are new World Journalism Institute graduates


Chloe Baker

Chloe Baker is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute.


Grace Kenyon

Grace Kenyon is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute.


Stephanie Morton

Stephanie Morton is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute.


Susan Olasky

Susan is a book reviewer, story coach, feature writer and editor for WORLD. She has authored eight historical novels for children and teaches twice a year at World Journalism Institute. Susan resides with her husband, Marvin, in Austin, Texas.

@susanolasky

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WFRA5346

Too many people have read and believed Bambi type books as kids. Animals don’t think like humans. If one chicken is sick or hurt, the rest will gang up on it and kill it… …. wait, maybe they do.

MTJanet

Excellent reporting. As a former owner of chickens, I have very little sympathy for them. We had "cage-free" and even outdoor chickens- they were brutal to each other. We understand the definiton of "bird brain" far better after this experience. I have no interest in the welfare of my chicken meat or eggs other than I do not believe in torturing animals. I would never pay a premium for "cage-free" eggs or chicken meat.

Peter Kushkowski

In my read through the OT this year this piece has me wondering about how humanely the THOUSANDS! of sacrificial lambs, bulls, goats, were slaughtered; notwithstanding the battlefield carnage of biblical proportions!

Salty1

A very good article and very informative. As our culture moves away from the Christian framework we pick up ungodly thinking. If you believe that humans are just another animal, then we shouldn’t be surprised when people begin to act on it and want to treat animals as human. At the same time I agree with the article that we should treat animals humanely, which is a Christian principle.

Todd Valerie M

Are free range chickens different from cage free? I became interested in grass-fed meat and eggs after reading a book on Vitamin K2. I can definitely see a difference in the color of the yolk in a free range egg. Grain based diets for animals have eradicated K2, and our bodies need it!

Laura W

Nice reporting. I took an online class about chicken welfare once (I was bored), and this definitely checks out. (Though I hadn't heard about the "enhanced colony" system before--that was interesting.) Just goes to show you the power of marketing, I suppose.