College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

Xin: Opportunities and challenges of going cage-free

Xin_HongweiBy Dr. Hongwei Xin

Special to Poultry Times

AMES, Iowa — The number of food service retailers, grocers, chain restaurants and tourism companies that have pledged to source only cage-free eggs by year 2025 translates to more than 160 million laying hens needed to meet the demand. This quantity exceeds half of the current U.S. laying-hen inventory.

While such a movement represents an opportunity to fundamentally transform the U.S. egg industry, considerations should be given to the following aspects.

Inherent trade-offs of all egg production systems. Egg industry consumers should not and will not lose sight of egg supply sustainability, which takes into account animal welfare, food safety, environmental impact, food affordability and caretakers’ well-being. These attributes matter in all egg production systems — conventional cage, enriched colony, cage-free, organic and free-range; and each system has its pros and cons.

Consequently, a holistic approach is imperative when assessing the sustainability of the egg supply chain and selecting a production system that is deemed suitable. The recently completed extensive field study, the Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply (CSES) Project, demonstrates such trade-offs among the different production systems with regards to the afore-stated sustainability components (http://www2.sustainableeggcoalition.org/).

While all systems should focus on continual improvement, egg-buying companies should make use of the available scientific data to set initial expectations in areas where a mandated shift in production system causes backslide in another area that their customers have come to expect.

A consumer’s right to choose. Because the inherent traits of different egg production systems are likely valued differently by different consumers, it is natural for consumers to want to preserve the opportunity of exercising their freedom or right to choose which product to buy.

This is particularly the case when there is no difference in egg nutrition values between cage and cage-free eggs, which is an important factor for today’s increasingly health-conscientious consumers.

Therefore, where possible, it would be highly prudent that a retailer monitor consumers’ purchase behaviors, assess their choices and then make informed decisions about the product supply. After all, meeting the customer’s needs is the essence of a retailer’s existence.

A significant financial investment and a gradual transition. The transition away from the conventional cage production system to meet the pledged cage-free egg demand is estimated to require about $6.6 to 9.6 billion investment, depending on if the cage-free barns will be retrofitted from the existing facilities or built brand new, and at least twice as many buildings to accommodate the hens needed. For small egg producers, such a major investment may prove to be the final straw that forces them out of business.

Based on our estimates at the Egg Industry Center, if the cage to cage-free transition follows the normal henhouse replacement schedule (after the house has reached its normal lifespan), the conversion is relatively doable for a majority of the industry, given the time schedule. There is a portion of the industry that will be unable to make this transition within this financially feasible window. For them, it is not clear how this will be achieved or what the repercussions may be. In addition to the laying-hen houses, new cage-free houses for rearing the pullets must be built to supply the cage-free hens.

A key challenge and uncertainty is: Will egg buyers (grocers, chain restaurants, retailers, etc.) start compensating their producer suppliers for the additional costs incurred before the pledged deadline (e.g., 2025)? The other scenario — converting from cage to cage-free egg production abruptly in 2025 — is simply not feasible.

Another uncertainty is the lack of uniform definition or recognition of cage-free egg production among different egg buyers. This ambiguity poses a major challenge for moving the industry forward. Buyers and producers should expect that once contracts are agreed to and construction starts, the time for ambiguities has expired. While slight adjustments may be made within existing structures, a system change is not achievable without another window of gradual transition.

Research and innovation urgently needed. Simply transitioning to cage-free doesn’t mean producers suddenly find themselves in a perfect production system where all the answers are known. Consumers need to understand that as well. Numerous challenges and areas needing improvement exist with cage-free egg production systems. Among the challenges are:

  • Indoor air quality concerns for both hens and workers (higher levels of dust, atmospheric ammonia and airborne bacteria)
  • Higher mortality and injuries of birds (e.g., fractured or deformed keel bone)
  • Incidences of eggs laid on the litter floor, which could increase the likelihood of microbial contamination
  • Higher potential for diseases
  • Lower feed efficiency, which elevates the system’s environmental footprint.

Improved housing design, genetics, nutrition and management practices and skills are among the solutions needed to overcome the challenges and shortcomings. Such endeavors take time and resources to accomplish. While research and development progress has been made in addressing these issues, there is a long way to go. It took more than 60 years of ongoing research and innovation to refine the cage production system to where it is today.

Overall, a commonly accepted definition and set of criteria on cage-free egg production among the scientific community, the egg industry and the retailers must be established and honored to ensure stability of the supply chains.

Changes are meant to bring about progress. However, when change is ill-planned or improperly executed, it can result in unintended consequences. As the saying goes, the devil is in the details. And the world is watching what the United States, the global leader, does. The advancement of our society is inseparable from ever-evolving science and technology, and the egg industry will be no exception.

Dr. Hongwei Xin is director of the Egg Industry Center at Iowa State University. He is a Charles F. Curtiss Distinguished Professor of Agriculture and Life Sciences, a professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering and of animal science and holds the Iowa Egg Council Endowed Professorship.

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