116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
KALONA — Though not 'free as a bird' in many respects, the hens that lay 'cage-free' eggs, unlike their conventional counterparts, can walk around, scratch in the dust and fly up to their roosts.
That quasi-freedom, in contrast with the caged lifestyle of hens in conventional facilities, accounts for the increasing popularity of cage-free eggs among consumers, industry experts say.
'It's a consumer-driven trend,' said Jonathan Spurway, a spokesman for Rembrandt Foods, the nation's third-largest producer of eggs, headquartered near Thompson in north-central Iowa.
While the eggs under either system are nearly identical in taste and nutrition, consumers are increasingly willing to pay a premium for cage-free eggs, he said.
'People are learning more about how their food is produced, and many are willing to pay more for fairer treatment of the animals,' he noted.
Of the approximately 100 billion eggs produced each year in the United States, 8.6 percent were produced in a cage-free environment as of last September.
By 2025 more than half the eggs consumed in the United States will be cage-free if trends continue, according to Spurway.
For Rembrandt, which recently announced plans for a three-million-hen, cage-free facility in South Dakota, cage-free production will be the company standard.
Retailer Wal-Mart, which accounts for 25 percent of all food sold in the country, recently announced it would use cage-free eggs exclusively by 2025 — a commitment similar to those made by hundreds of other retailers and restaurant chains.
'This is a monumental moment in the history of animal protection in America,' said Paul Shapiro, vice president of farm animal protection for the Humane Society of the United States.
Shapiro described as 'a tipping point' a California law, enacted Jan. 1, 2015, that required that eggs sold in the state come from hens that have enough room to extend their wings and turn freely around. Shapiro said he expects voters in Massachusetts to approve a similar measure in November.
Another tipping point was the September announcement by McDonald's Corp., which uses two billion eggs per year, that it will begin phasing out the use of eggs from hens housed in cages, according to Maro Ibarburu-Blanc, a business analyst at Iowa State University's Egg Industry Center.
His colleague, Hongwei Xin, said he hoped consumers always will be able to choose between conventionally produced eggs and cage-free eggs, each of which has its pros and cons.
Most of the corporate commitments to cage-free eggs have 2020 or 2025 deadlines, he said, because it can take years to complete the transition.
Cage-free eggs cost more to produce because hens in a cage-free facility require more space, feed and attention, and better ventilation than their cage-housed counterparts, Xin said.
Rembrandt's Spurway said the cost differential is about 40 percent.
Hens in a cage-free setting also have more injuries and higher mortality because of their tendency to peck each other, Xin said.
Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey shares Xin's belief that consumers should be able to choose between cage-free and conventionally produced eggs.
'That's the right way to do it rather than the way California did it by force of law,' he said.
Hy-Vee supermarkets stock cage-free and other egg varieties consistent with the company's mission to serve customers with 'varying dietary preferences and economic circumstances,' spokeswoman Tina Potthoff said.
'From Georgia to California'
New Pioneer Food Co-op, which has stores in Iowa City, Coralville and Cedar Rapids, sells nothing but organic and cage-free eggs, according to Gavin Potter, grocery supervisor at the Cedar Rapids store.
'The big factor,' he said, 'is that consumers don't want to contribute to the mistreatment of hens.'
Ryan Miller, proprietor of Farmers Hen House Eggs in rural Kalona, a wholesale distributor of organic and cage-free eggs, said the product's chief appeal is 'how the hens are raised.'
His company collects eggs from more than 40 producers, most of them Amish, and distributes them to supermarkets 'from Georgia to California,' including several Iowa Hy-Vee and Fareway stores, he said.
Miller said the hens are raised in open barns with nesting, roosting and walking areas. In good weather, he said, the hens in many cases can go outdoors to forage.
The typical barn houses 8,000 hens, each with 1.5 square feet of space, which converts to 216 square inches. That does not sound like much, but it is more than three times as spacious as the 67 square inches typically allotted to a caged hen.
Today's 40-plus producers compares with a half dozen when the company was founded in 2000, Miller said.
'We grow in spurts, with leveling off in between,' he said.