Laying hens belong on pasture where they can spend their day exploring and scratching in the grasses for insects, dust-bathing in the earth, stretching their wings, socializing with other hens, and basking in the sun. Although the vast majority of laying hens are still confined in row after row of cramped, barren “battery” cages stacked one on top of the other, an industry transformation is underway.
AWI and other advocates have pressed for significant welfare improvements, and the egg industry has resisted. As momentum built against keeping the hens in battery cages, the industry responded by offering colony cages that it referred to as “enriched,” which offered a bit more room. One of the third-party certification programs, American Humane Certified (AHC), actually wrote colony cage standards, and two states made colony cages the baseline production system for eggs sold in their states. In 2012, national legislation was introduced to make colony cages the uniform standard for egg production. However, when this legislation failed, the colony cage trend lost its momentum and the movement to keep hens in an environment that did not involve cages began to blossom.
Much of the focus is on cage-free operations, where the birds typically live indoors in massive sheds with perches and nest boxes. Dozens of large companies, including Walmart, McDonalds, and Costco, have now committed to sourcing eggs from cage-free systems. In fact, 14 of the 15 largest grocery chains in the United States have made cage-free commitments. The United Egg Producers estimates that even without further commitments, half of the egg industry will switch to cage-free systems to meet current demand.
As cage-free production becomes the industry norm, the high- welfare market is increasing its embrace of pasture-based operations where the hens are outdoors. In fact, large pastoral egg companies—most notably, Vital Farms, Happy Egg Co., and Handsome Brooke Farm—have increased in number and size over the last several years; eggs from these companies can be found in grocery stores across the country, including large chain stores like Target, Wegmans, Fred Myer, and Safeway.
Another indicator that pastoral operations are gaining ground is an increase in third-party certification programs for pasture-based farms. Animal Welfare Approved, which AWI founded in 2006, created the first comprehensive pasture-based certification standards, and now others are following suit. Certified Humane and AHC, two of the largest animal welfare third-party certification programs, created pasture standards for egg-laying hens, and Global Animal Partnership will do so later this year. (Vital Farms, Happy Egg Co., and Handsome Brooke Farm are all third-party certified.)
The future for egg-laying hens raised organically is also promising. The USDA has proposed changing its egg-laying hen standards for the National Organic Program (see page 2); a former emphasis on cage-free production is poised to give way to more rigorous standards that provide the birds with meaningful outdoor access on pasture, with enrichments and more room when indoors, as well.
Today, consumers can support the shift toward higher welfare by seeking out eggs not just from cage-free facilities, but from the growing number of pasture-based, third-party certified operations.