The rapid move of food processors and foodservice outlets to make pledges for future cage-free egg purchases would lead one to suspect a major shift in U.S. consumers’ attitudes towards laying hen welfare, or at least how they perceive housing impacts the hen’s welfare. But, I don’t think this is the case.
I don’t think consumer attitudes have changes much; I just think that animal rights activists groups were successful in getting some international food companies that operate in countries that have switched to cage-free eggs at retail to make pledges for all their operations. Egg cost is, in many cases, a small part of the total cost of the finished food product, and a decision was likely made that the small cost advantage of cage-produced versus cage-free eggs wasn’t worth the bother of dealing with activist groups and or maintaining duel inventories as grocery stores do for shell eggs.
Once the international food companies started to fall, the fast food restaurant chains were next. I have definitely wondered if McDonald’s would have made its cage-free purchase pledge if its same-store restaurant sales hadn’t been a little soft or if the chain wasn’t about to launch all-day breakfast. But once McDonald’s pledged cage-free, the rest of the food-service dominoes really started to fall.
This brings us to the biggest egg market of all in the U.S.: shell eggs sold in grocery stores. This is the one marketplace where consumers have had a choice for years: eggs from cage-housed and cage-free hens sold side by side.
Cage-free egg sales have been gaining market share from eggs produced by cage-housed hens, but cage-free is still a tiny fraction of the total. When given the choice, the vast majority of U.S. consumers are happy with eggs from cage-housed hens, and grocers know it.