Grocery and food service executives got a first-hand look at how eggs are produced at a meeting held in Denver last month. A trip to Morning Fresh Farms near Denver was the first order of business for the attendees of the United Egg Producers Grocery & Foodservice Executive Animal Welfare Conference.

United Egg Producers, led by President and CEO Gene Gregory, the GolinHarris public relations firm, Dr. Jeff Armstrong of Michigan State University, and several egg producers, hosted the event to demonstrate and educate attendees about how eggs are produced.

The Morning Fresh Farm offered the opportunity to view both cage and non-cage production units and proved to be an outstanding example of how to produce eggs in an extremely clean and sanitary environment.

Egg producers Paul Sauder and Bob Krouse made presentations on their operations and confirmed the way they handle the many varieties of eggs that are required from customers. A constant theme throughout the meeting was that egg producers are prepared to supply the needs dictated by their consumers.

Eighty-five percent of the eggs produced in the United States currently come from laying hens that are under the UEP Certified program. The UEP Guidelines for certification have been established by the independent scientific committee made up of top university scientists that have studied the issue and developed the written format. A statement that appears on the cartons of eggs produced at Paul Sauder's farm sums up the position of egg producers regarding cage layers:

"You can take comfort in knowing that these eggs are from chickens raised by caring poultry farmers under strict United Egg Producer Certified Guidelines. These guidelines provide the highest quality eggs and the best treatment for chickens. The cages protect and provide for their welfare. These guidelines were developed by an independent group of the nation's top animal welfare and behavioral experts. Our farms are audited by USDA or other third party inspectors. In addition to being good for the quality of the eggs and the welfare of the chickens, cage production also provides the most economical eggs for the consumer to purchase."

Speakers said that in the egg laying industry, animal rights groups have chosen to try to eliminate one of the features that allows high quality eggs to be produced safely, without contamination in an environment that is both efficient and comfortable to the layers. Eliminating cage systems is only the beginning of the activists attempt to stop animal agriculture.

Attendees at the Denver conference were represented by university foodservice personnel, representatives from leading grocery store chains, restaurant representatives, state legislators and representatives of the Colorado Department of Agriculture. Most or all of them are feeling the pressures from the animal activists to only use eggs from non-cage laying hens. Starting with the trip to the actual egg laying and processing facility and going through the presentations by the experts, the meeting was an eye opener for many in attendance.

Cage-Free Initiatives

There are two major initiatives currently on the table by the activists. First, Colorado is facing a legislative attempt to ban cages, and second, California residents are being asked to sign a petition that could lead to a referendum on the November 2008 ballot to eliminate cages in that state. These actions are of concern to producers and they are meeting to find ways to combat these threats.

Should activists be successful in eliminating cages in these areas, eggs from cage layers in other states, or even foreign countries, could be brought in, creating even bigger problems and costs. It was pointed out that costs of new buildings and land to accommodate non-cage facilities would be prohibitive.

Egg producers, however, intend to provide any and all types of eggs that the public requests. A variety of specialty eggs are available and will continue to be available as consumers demand them. Regular carton shell eggs produced in cages account for over 95 percent of the eggs sold at retail.

The regular eggs are less than half the cost of the specialty eggs and therefore this would create an additional problem if cages were eliminated. This factor is very important to the attendees of the meeting as they purchase eggs in large quantities.

For example, if a university which serves thousands of meals per day were suddenly to change to cage free eggs at double or more the price, their overall costs would go up considerably.

This was the situation seen recently at Notre Dame University, however, instead of accepting activist demands, the university did an investigation on its own as to why they should accept the extra expense and go to non-caged eggs in their foodservice facility. They visited local egg production farms with both UEP Certified cage and non-caged layers. This resulted in their decision to continue using the more efficient product. Several other institutions throughout the country conducted similar studies with the same results, saving their organization the excess costs of specialty eggs while maintaining their high standards.

In the European egg industry, it is evident that organized producer groups were not in place to combat animal activist efforts. This was pointed out to the group at the UEP meeting. Emotions and public perceptions influenced the results in Europe instead of the scientific approach that is being done in the United States. As a result, conventional-sized cages are being phased out in most countries, causing some producers to go out of business and others to spend large sums of capitol to provide alternate housing. In some cases there has been an elaborate "enriched" cage system that creates a much greater space requirement and costly situation.

The opposition to the egg industry, as well as other animal production industries, is indeed formidable. For example, The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) claims over 10 million members and has a budget of hundreds of millions of dollars. Obviously, many of these members are pet lovers and know nothing about the organization's efforts to end animal agriculture. Several other groups have the same goals.

Using their vast resources, people from these groups have committed farm break-ins and falsified entry to take pictures and obtain negative comments from workers. They use their websites effectively to spread this misinformation as well as distribute videos to television and radio stations. In one incident, activists attempted to blame Asian Avian Influenza on large confined poultry houses.

Just the opposite is true. In Asia, the outbreaks were caused by open air poultry facilities and the contact they had with wild bird carriers. All of this information, and much more was presented to the attendees at the UEP Grocery & Foodservice Conference by UEP staff, scientific advisors and egg producers.

Gregory commented on a few of the markets that the activists have targeted. He referenced a well-known retailer that tried to avoid the pressure to buy all cage-free eggs. When the retailer resisted, the activists punished them by jamming their system with over 30,000 e-mails. This is only one example of the intimidations that UEP is aware of in the effort to ban cages. Gregory also remarked that the U.S. egg industry has become the model in the fight against the animal activist's efforts. Other species also under pressure have taken some of the initiatives accomplished by the egg industry for their own use.

As a matter of interest, the International Egg Commission has adopted the UEP Guidelines for their standard. This is a big plus for the U.S. industry and the facts were pointed out to the attendees at the conference. There was a large amount of literature and information distributed during the conference. A copy of the UEP Animal Husbandry Guidelines as well as The Egg Industry and Animal Welfare, a scientific approach booklet, were part of the information packet taken home by the attendees. UEP has assembled a wealth of information on the animal welfare subject and will provide answers to anyone with questions on how to combat the activist's efforts.

Producing eggs in cages under the UEP Guidelines is both humane and safe for the product, speakers said. Those who are using great numbers of eggs in their operations can be assured of a high quality food product at a reasonable cost. Egg producers have assured those that prefer non-cage eggs and other specialty eggs that they will be available depending on the consumers' wishes. Animal activists, promoting the end of animal agriculture, should not be the deciding factor on how the egg industry produces their product.