Cage-free eggs: US food companies under pressure

26-07-2021 | | |
Industry body United Egg Producers says the number of hens housed in conventional cage environments is decreasing as producers, retailers and food manufacturers transition to cage-free eggs. Photo: Bert Jansen
Industry body United Egg Producers says the number of hens housed in conventional cage environments is decreasing as producers, retailers and food manufacturers transition to cage-free eggs. Photo: Bert Jansen

Several major US food companies have been exposed for failing to meet their public commitments to source 100% cage-free eggs from their egg supply chains by the end of last year.

Many of the food companies’ commitments to move to cage-free eggs were made in the middle of the last decade and have been monitored by welfare organisations such as Compassion in World Farming and the Humane Society.

Egg Track report

Compassion in World Farming took a global approach as part of its annual Egg Track report which last year reported that of the 210 companies tracked, around 63% had reported progress towards their commitments. For example, it cited Danone for increasing its global cage-free sourcing from 45% to 88%, with Aramark, Sodexo and Compass Group all reporting global progress across all egg types (shell, liquid and processed).

Since 2016, the number of companies with a global cage-free commitment has grown from 5 to at least 37, including global giants such as Unilever and Nestlé. 

Tracking companies

The Humane Society has been tracking hundreds of companies in the US to ensure they keep their consumer promises. Of the 58 firms most recently scrutinised, 49 companies announced that their supply chains would be cage-free but 9 had failed to keep their promises, according to the Humane League’s Cage-Free Eggspose report.

These included leading national restaurant chains:

  • Wendys
  • Wawa
  • Pita Pit 
  • Nugget Markets 

David Coman-Hidy, Humane League president, said: “Customers and shareholders alike deserve to know how companies are making good on their commitments to reduce the animal cruelty in their supply chains – and to comply with the growing list of state laws that ban the sale of battery-cage eggs.”

Growing pressure on egg sector

There is growing pressure on the egg industry not in the form of national legislation – which might be expected in European countries – but through state laws. At the end of this year, producing ‘cage-free’ will soon be mandated by law for companies that sell eggs in California, Oregon, Rhode Island, Washington and Michigan. Other states have also introduced legislation. In Colorado, cage-free or more extensive housing has to be introduced on farm by 1 January 2024, while in Arizona, cage-free requirements by 31 December 2024 are being introduced.

Sustainability and Welfare – special focus
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Cage housing decreased

Industry body United Egg Producers says the number of hens housed in conventional cage environments is decreasing as producers, retailers and food manufacturers transition to cage-free eggs. In 2019, nearly a quarter (24%) of all hens were in cage-free production, or almost 80 million birds, including the organic sector, which makes up around 6% of the overall total. That is a substantial rise in recent years – up from just 4% in 2010 and 12% in 2016.

US hen sector to meet 2026 cage-free deadline

But according to the US Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service, approximately 64% of US hens must be in cage-free production by 2026 to meet projected consumer demand.

All we ask is that companies are transparent about their progress.

Real progress in cage-free can be seen

Beth Anne Hendrickson, Humane League corporate relations manager, said that after years of campaigning, real change on the ground was taking place: “I think we’re seeing exciting progress; significant momentum across the industry away from the caged system.” Hendrickson rejected the notion that Humane League was putting undue pressure on the egg sector, saying the organisation was just ensuring that companies kept their commitments to customers and shareholders: “All we ask is that companies are transparent about their progress. We understand it takes time to make changes across the supply chain.”

Covid-19 challenges

Companies approached by the Humane League are often willing to talk about their situation and she recognised that Covid-19 has caused issues for the sector over the past year but added that all firms had been in the same situation and others had made significant progress. She said the Humane League was not currently working with CIWF in the US on this issue: “I have seen their great tool to track progress across key players in the industry but we aren’t involved in their study… but it is a great resource and reference for us.”

…investors are increasingly interested in animal welfare issues…


The Business Benchmark on Farm Animal Welfare is a framework tool to help investors, companies, NGOs and other stakeholders understand farm animal welfare issues and the relative performance of food companies in this area, and monitors a number of US companies. Hendrickson said she was encountering increasing shareholder pressure: “I know from contacts that investors are increasingly interested in animal welfare issues… We do give companies credit where due. For example, Walmart and McDonalds are leading the way on cage-free eggs.” However, she recognised the industry was still in a different place to the European egg sector due to cultural differences, the scale of the US industry and EU legislation.

Public opinion on cages

Vicky Bond, Humane League UK managing director and animal welfare specialist, added: “The barren battery cage ban in 2012 ensured that cages were firmly put into European minds as bad. While many producers moved to enriched cages, the public was horrified that rather than converting to cage-free systems, they’d just be investing in a larger cage.”

Egg box labeling

“This is alongside very clear marketing rules that ensure all egg packets identify the eggs using the system of 3 – enriched cage, 2 – barn, 1 – free range, and 0 – organic. And that free-range affords birds at least 4m2 of space per bird outside. In this way, consumers see the word ‘caged’ on the packaging and can avoid them and free-range acutally means access to a large range area. And now countries such as Germany are banning cages entirely, with over 90% cage-free already.”

Cage-Free Eggspose

So is the latest campaign working? Following the release of the Cage-Free Eggspose, the Humane League was able to report that 3 companies – Arby’s, Lucky’s Market and Nugget Market – had all agreed to publicly report on their cage-free progress.


Arby’s published their policy on their parent site (Inspire Brands), saying it had committed to finalising 100% sourcing of cage-free eggs by 2025, with phased implementation timing for its Sonic brand related to the volume of eggs used. Arby’s said it had completed its transition to serving only cage-free eggs by the end of 2020.

100% cage-free is our end goal

Dairy Queen

Discussions with other companies are also bearing fruit, with national chain Dairy Queen saying it was on track to meet its cage-free egg commitment in both the US and Canada for shell eggs, liquid eggs and proprietary products by 2025. And for the long-term future?

US hens in cages in 2025

Hendrickson is clear: “100% cage-free is our end goal”. That may be some years ahead. US egg producers predicted last year that more than half of US hens will still be in cages in 2025.

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Tony Mcdougal Freelance Journalist