2016 appears to be a successful year for organizations trying to improve the life quality of laying hens in the UK. In July, top British retailers Tesco (number 1), Aldi, Iceland, Morrisons and finally Lidl and Asda (number 3) declared their commitment to stop sourcing whole shell eggs from caged hens by 2025. They follow in the footsteps of other top 10 UK retailers such as Sainsbury’s, The Co-operative, Waitrose, and Marks and Spencer who since 2007 (The Co-operative since 2008) have sold whole shell eggs only from free range hens (as a minimum) in their stores and at least since 2012 manufacture their own products using cage-free eggs (1).
In Sainsbury’s alone, this positive shift affects 3 million laying hens a year. (And CIWF estimates that if Tesco alone fulfills its commitments, it will mean a better life quality for nearly 2 million of the 20 million laying hens currently kept in cages in the UK (2).
The same positive shift happened earlier in the US, where 25 top US food retailers have already made their commitment that within 10 years they will cease selling eggs from caged hens. For instance, Publix supermarkets announced in July that their eggs will be only cage-free from 2026 and – what’s probably even greater news – in April, the same declaration was made by Walmart, America’s largest grocery chain. They have joined other giants such as McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Croger, Costco and Trader Joe’s (3).
McDonald’s uses two billion shell and liquid eggs per year for its meals - switching to cage-free eggs will positively affect the lives of about 8 million laying hens (4).
Recently, another famous food retailer, French Sodexo, declared its commitment to sourcing only cage-free liquid eggs worldwide from 2025. Sodexo operates in 82 countries and sources approximately a quarter of a billion eggs per year. In the US, Sodexo has just switched to cage-free eggs and has declared to source only cage-free liquid eggs by 2020 as it has done in Belgium since 2008 and in Germany since 2015 (5).
Considering that in the US, less than 10% of laying hens are not locked in cages and only approximately 6% of eggs are cage-free, these commitments made by such giant companies will hopefully change the current way of farming for the better. The success of the cage-free eggs campaign (including e.g. petitions) in the UK and US is mainly due to CIWF in cooperation with other animal protection organizations such as The Humane Society of the United States, The Humane League and Mercy for Animals.
Another example proving that cage-free eggs campaigns can bring amazing results can be seen in Germany, where the market share of caged eggs dropped from 87% in the year 2000 to approximately 10% nowadays (6). This was thanks to the Albert Schweitzer Foundation working with other animal protection organizations. In 2003, they managed to convince Aldi Nord, one of Germany’s biggest supermarket chains, to stop selling eggs from battery caged hens. Aldi Nord was followed by other major German supermarkets and leading cash and carry businesses who also decided to cease selling caged eggs, e.g. Netto, Lidl, Kaufland and Hit.
How will hens benefit from cage-free farming?
Cage-free does not mean that hens will be kept outdoors, joyfully searching for worms in the green grass. It only means that birds will not be stuck in battery cages and ‘enriched’ cages, and therefore will not spend their life in the worst legally permitted conditions like this:
Being cage-free may mean that they remain indoors, depending on state legislations. For instance, in the US at the moment there are no clear legal regulations for non-cage alternatives (that is: cage-free without outdoor access, free-range and organic systems) as only 5% of eggs come from such kinds of farming (7) check also Animal Walfare Institute's guide to food labels.
For instance, free range system legislations only oblige farmers to provide birds with some kind of outdoor access. More precise standards are established only by third party humane certifications e.g. Animal Welfare Approved (when it comes to the commited food retailers, Walmart, for instance, decided that its suppliers have to be certfied by United Egg Producers and comply with their Animal Husbandry Guidelines (8). To receive USDA organic certification, hens must be raised without antibiotics and get some (again - imprecise) outdoor access.
Finally, cage-free systems typically (though not defined legally) means raising hens in barns or aviaries where, although hens are not provided with outdoors access, they still have more space and possibilities for their natural behaviour (e.g. stretching wings, laying eggs in nests or pecking) than in cage systems.
European countries that are supposed to follow EU legislations regarding cage-free systems may raise hens in two systems: enriched cages (at least 750 cm2 of cage area per hen) – battery cages have been banned since 2012 – or alternative systems (all systems where there are no more than 9 laying hens per 1 m2 with at least one nest per 7 hens) (9). In the UK, the alternative systems constitute barns, free range and organic (10). Any of these three options is still better than cage systems and effective realization of giant food retailers’ promises will improve laying hens’ future welfare. Additionally, if the cage-free system becomes a typical and not exclusive way of farming to meet new supply requirements, it may result in lower prices for cage-free eggs, making them more affordable for customers, and may encourage all branches of the food industry to phase out caged eggs.