The Salt
4:26 pm
Thu June 27, 2013

What The Rise Of Cage-Free Eggs Means For Chickens

Originally published on Sat June 29, 2013 9:32 pm

The typical life of an egg-laying chicken is beginning to change dramatically.

Ninety percent of the eggs we eat come from chickens that live in long lines of wire cages, about eight birds to a cage. Animal welfare groups have long been campaigning against these cages.

They are succeeding, and this is where the change starts. In recent years, several big food companies have promised to switch to "cage-free" eggs. They include Unilever, which sells Hellmann's mayonnaise, and Aramark, which supplies food to big companies, colleges and prisons.

Those promises set off a supply chain reaction. "There weren't enough cage-free eggs for us to do Hellmann's Light mayonnaise, initially," says Doug Balentine, director of nutrition and health for Unilever North America. "It's going to take us about five years of working with egg suppliers so that we can convert all the egg farmers, just to supply the eggs for Hellmann's mayonnaise."

Which brings us to a brand-new pair of chicken houses tucked into the rolling farmland near Hershey, Pa.

Inside one of those houses, 18,000 chickens are milling around on the floor. Some are perched on metal bars. A few are madly pecking away at the plastic covers on my shoes.

The chickens just arrived here a few weeks ago. So did the farmer, a taciturn young man named Harold Sensenig, who grew up just down the road.

"Been living here for about four weeks now. Moved in a week before the chickens came. Got married two weeks before that," he says.

These chickens aren't free-range or organic; they don't go outside. But they do get to roam around inside the house, which makes them cage-free.

Sensenig built this style of chicken house — and a bank financed it — on the strength of those promises by Unilever and Aramark.

Sensenig has a deal with a local egg buyer, Sauder's Eggs, which is paying twice the going rate for cage-free eggs. Sauder Eggs, in turn, supplies those eggs to Unilever and Aramark.

"It's the demand that's driving it," says Paul Sauder, who owns Sauder's Eggs. "I mean, I wouldn't take the risk of paying double for these eggs, versus commodity eggs, if I didn't have the demand pushing on the other side."

According to the United Egg Producers, about 7 percent of all eggs now come from cage-free houses. That's up from 3 percent five years ago. For Sauder's business, it's currently 10 or 12 percent, and growing every year.

It's more expensive to produce eggs this way, Sauder says. You need more buildings for the same number of chickens, because you can't stack the birds on several levels in the same house. There's also more work involved — somebody has to walk through the chicken house collecting stray eggs that chickens laid on the ground, rather than in their enclosed nests.

But the industry, he says, is responding to "the perception that cage-free is a better product than eggs from a conventional cage house."

"Do you believe that?" I ask.

Sauder pauses. "From a nutrition standpoint, the egg is the same," he says.

Yet as Sauder stands amid the crowd of chickens, he does seem pleased. You're closer to the animals, he says, the way farmers were 50 years ago. You also get to see chickens acting more like chickens, dust-bathing or perching on long metal rods up near the ceiling. "You come in here at nighttime, those things are all full up there, because birds migrate to the top perches. That's where they feel safest," he says.

There's still some argument, though, about whether that means the chickens are really better off.

In Michigan, scientists are carrying out a large-scale experiment with three different full-scale chicken houses. One has chickens in traditional cages; one has so-called enriched cages that are bigger, and include nests and perches; and a third house is cage-free.

"We have over 300 cameras mounted within those systems to collect data," says Janice Swanson, from Michigan State University. She's one of the scientists in charge of the study, which is funded by a consortium of egg producers.

Swanson says they are measuring every aspect of each system: how clean the air is; how healthy the chickens are; how much it costs; how each system affects a chicken's welfare.

On the third floor of Michigan State's animal sciences building, teams of students are carefully watching videotapes, counting how often the chickens do things like spread their wings or peck each other.

Swanson says it's important to measure all of these things because there may be trade-offs between different goals.

For instance, in cage-free systems, chicken litter builds up on the floor, so chickens scratch around and dust-bathe in their own waste. "There are concerns about that, relative to egg safety," he says. "Now, for the hen's behavioral repertoire, this is cool! We can get down and dust-bathe, and so on."

The experiment has been running for a year now, and the scientists have released some preliminary observations. Here are just a few: Hens in cages were cleaner, but cage-free chickens kept more of their feathers. Cage-free hens may have had more freedom, but twice as many of them died during the year.

Swanson says it's too early to draw any firm conclusions, though, because these observations are from just one production cycle.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Ninety percent of the eggs we eat come from chickens who live in long rows of wire cages, about eight birds to a cage. Many people like the idea giving chickens more freedom. When these shoppers buy eggs, they look for the label cage-free. That's driving farmers to spend money on new kinds of chicken houses. NPR's Dan Charles went to investigate what life is like for those farmers and their chickens.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: In the rolling farmland near Hershey, Pennsylvania, there's a brand-new pair of chicken houses. And inside one of those houses, instead of the standard banks of cages, 18,000 chickens are milling around on the floor. Some are perched on metal bars. A few are madly pecking away at my boots - I have no idea why.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICKENS FLAPPING AND SQUAWKING)

CHARLES: The chickens just arrived here a few weeks ago. So did the farmer, actually. Harold Sensenig is a young man, newly married.

HAROLD SENSENIG: Oh, been living here for about four weeks now. Moved in a week before the chickens came, got married two weeks before that.

CHARLES: These chickens aren't free-range or organic. They don't get to go outside but they do get to roam around inside the house, so they're cage-free. Sensenig built this kind of chicken house partly because he can get more money for cage-free eggs - twice as much. And the man who's promised to buy them is also here, Paul Sauder, owner of Sauder's Eggs.

PAUL SAUDER: It's the demand that's driving it. I mean, I wouldn't go the risk of paying double the price for these eggs, versus commodity, if I didn't have the demand pushing it on the other side.

CHARLES: Sauder's company will sell these eggs to supermarkets or Aramark, the food service company, or Unilever, which makes Hellman's Mayonnaise. Aramark and Unilever have announced that eventually they'll only buy cage-free eggs.

Doug Balentine, director of nutrition and health for Unilever North America, says when the company announced this plan a few years ago, they couldn't find enough cage-free eggs.

DOUG BALENTINE: There wasn't even enough cage-free egg for us to do Hellman's Light Mayonnaise, initially. And it's going to take us about five years of working with the egg suppliers, so that we can convert all the egg farmers, just to supply the eggs for Hellman's Mayonnaise.

CHARLES: Nationwide, about eight percent of all eggs come from cage-free houses. For Paul Sauder's business it's 10 or 12 percent and growing every year. It's more expensive to produce eggs this way, he says. It takes more space for the same number of chickens because you can't stack them on top of each other. And there's more work involved. Somebody has to walk through the chicken house collecting stray eggs the chickens laid on the ground rather than in their enclosed nests.

But companies like Unilever or Aramark, he says, are responding to consumers who read labels more carefully than ever before.

SAUDER: And the perception that cage-free is a better product than ones from a conventional cage house.

CHARLES: Do you believe it?

SAUDER: From a nutrition standpoint, the egg is the same.

CHARLES: At the same time, he says, there are things he really likes about this kind of chicken house. You're closer to the animals, the way you used to be 40 years ago. And you see more natural chicken behavior - dust-bathing, for instance, or birds perching on long metal rods up near the ceiling.

SAUDER: You come in here at nighttime, those things are all full up there because birds migrate to the top perches because that's where they feel the safest.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICKENS SQUAWKING)

CHARLES: Whether that means the chickens are really better off, though, still may depend on how you look at it. In Michigan, scientists are carrying out a large-scale experiment with three different chicken houses. One has chickens in traditional cages; one has so-called enriched cages that are bigger and include nests and perches; and a third house is cage-free.

JANICE SWANSON: We have, I think, over 300 cameras mounted within those systems, to be able to collect data.

CHARLES: That's Janice Swanson from Michigan State University, one of the scientists who's in charge of the study. It's funded by egg producers. Swanson says they're measuring everything about each system - how clean the air is; how healthy the chickens are; how much it costs; also, chicken behavior.

On the third floor of the Michigan State Animal Sciences building, students are watching videotapes; counting how often the chickens spread their wings or peck each other. Swanson says they want to measure all these things because there may be tradeoffs between different goals. For instance, in cage-free systems, chicken litter builds up on the floor, so chickens scratch around and dust-bathe in their own waste.

SWANSON: There are concerns about that relative to egg safety. Now, for the hens' behavioral repertoire, this is cool. We can get down and we can dust-bathe, and so on.

CHARLES: The experiment has been running for a year now. Here are some preliminary observations. Hens in cages were cleaner but cage-free chickens kept more of their feathers. Cage-free hens had more freedom, of course, but twice as many of them died during the year.

Swanson says this is just one production cycle. It will take a while longer to draw any firm conclusions.

Dan Charles, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.