CAGE FREE VS. FREE RANGE: Cage free eggs come from hens raised in hen houses, whereas free range eggs come from hens who have access to a barnyard as well as a cage free hen house.
A growing animal welfare campaign has a wave of colleges and universities, corporate cafeterias, natural foods markets, management companies, even a K-8 school either eliminating or reducing their use of eggs from caged hens.
The Washington D.C. based Humane Society of the United States has been at the forefront of a movement over the last year to aggressively promote cagefree egg use. Many of its arguments relate to a belief that the quality of life of a cage-free hen is better than that of a batterycaged hen.
Egged on by campus activists who embrace this idea, colleges such as Univ. of Connecticut, Yale, Tufts, Dartmouth, Notre Dame, UC Berkeley and The Ohio State University have embraced a cage-free egg policy in one form or another.
And while colleges are clearly on the front lines of this controversy, operators in other segments, especially in regions known for political activism, are following suit.
Last month, the cafè at Internet super-giant Google joined other corporate cafès like those at AOL and Oracle Corporation when it also made the decision to discontinue using cagefarm produced eggs in the company's employee dining facilities.
In March, The Unquowa School in Fairfield (CT)—a K-8 school—eliminated the use of eggs from caged birds.
"Switching to more humanely produced eggs fits with the schools commitment to foster positive ethical values in our students," says Sharon Lauer, Head of the Unquowa School.
More than 200 dining facilitiesin 26 states went cage-free when Bon Appètit Management Company, a division of Compass Group that has for years endorsed sustainable and organically produced food ingredients, switched to cage free shell eggs last October. Bon Appètit annually purchases eight million shell eggs.
"We switched from batterycage eggs both because of the quality of life for the birds and because of the negative environmental impact of large-scale agribusiness," says Maisie Ganzler, director of communications and strategic initiatives at Bon Appètit.
This promises to be a hot topic on college campuses in the coming year. One sign: NACUFS will hold an educational session looking at the pros and cons surrounding cage vs. cage-free eggs on July 27 at its annual conference.
'Humane': All It's Cracked Up to Be?
Agricultural industry groups point out that the case made for cage-free eggs tends to be told as a one-sided story.
"Many of our producers offer both cage-free and conventional eggs," says Gene Gregory, vice president of the United Egg Producers (UEP). "While we have no objection to cage-free eggs, we believe the choice should remain with the consumer."
In 1999, the UEP asked an independent scientific advisory committee of leading agriculture and animal behavior experts from universities, government agencies and the American Humane Society to review research on the well-being of egg laying hens. From all available scientific research, this group was asked to make recommendations for improvements, if needed. The committee's recommendations formed the basis for the United Egg Producers Certified program.
"Our program assures that eggs are from farmers who adhere to the highest scientific standards for egg production and undergo independent audits from the USDA and others to ensure 100 percent compliance," says Gregory. "Eighty-five percent of the egg industry adheres to these guidelines. At present, there are no scientific guidelines for cage-free production."
"Hens kept in cage-free, organic, or free-range systems have higher rates of mortality than those kept in cage production systems," says Jim Chakeres, executive vice president of the Ohio Poultry Association.
He also points out that cagefree and free-range hens require continuous medicated feed for some diseases and often require more drugs than cage hens, because of their constant exposure and contact with litter and waste on barn floors. Hens in cage systems seldom require drugs and only receive medicines or drugs for therapeutic reasons.
Looking ahead, Gregory also believes that "there is a higher risk for avian influenza with freerange hens," he adds.
Cage-free eggs are more expensive than conventional eggs and also are susceptible to significant regional cost variations. There are also availability issues that vary regionally. This makes it easier for some operators to make the switch than others.
According to ACNielsen, overall-U.S. egg sales dropped from 2.02 billion per dozen in the 52 weeks ending March 2002 to 1.84 billion per dozen in the 52 weeks ending March 2006 (an 8.6% decrease over the past four years).
Meanwhile, sales of organic eggs per dozen went up 32% during those four years. Clearly, for some operators, it's not so simple to buy eggs anymore.
Local eggs, organic eggs, cagefreeeggs, farm-raised eggs, free range eggs, omega-3 eggs, and biodynamic eggs are all being promoted as niche products as producers seek growth in a mature market. Eggs free of antibiotics, fertilized eggs, natural eggs and, on the other end of the spectrum, irradiated eggs offer still more options.
Names aren't everything though. As far as the USDA is concerned, all eggs are "natural." Nutritionally speaking, low cholesterol and high omega-3 eggs are better for you, but experts point out that most people don't eat so many eggs that such differences have too significant an impact. There is no nutritional difference between cage free and conventional eggs.
"Choice should not be taken away from consumers by pressure tactics or misinformation," says Gregory. "The bottom line is that we want people to continue to specify eggs based on educated and informed facts."