Just a little over a year ago, U.S. egg producers responding to Egg Industry’s Annual Top Egg Company Survey projected they would add nearly twice the housing for cage-housed hens as cage free hens, 7.1 and 3.7 million head worth, respectively. Now it would be surprising if any egg producer followed through on plans to install new cages in the U.S.
The United Egg Producers released a report on March 3, 2016, to its members which estimated that 28.5 million cage-free hens would be required to fully fill the needs of restaurant and foodservice customers who have made cage-free egg purchase pledges. In September 2015, the USDA estimated the number of non-organic cage-free hens in the U.S. at around 13 million head. So, the non-organic cage-free flock would need to more than double in size to meet these pledges, and that doesn’t take into consideration purchase pledges by grocery chains and food processors.
Retail cage-free purchase pledges started with the warehouse club Costco, which has been followed by its competitors BJ’s and Price Club. Now, several major grocery chains including Aldi, Ahold USA, Albertson’s Group and the Delhaize Group have made cage-free purchase pledges.
Expansion and replacement projects from now on should all be cage-free. But should producers start retiring cages that either aren’t worn out or aren’t fully depreciated? Most purchase pledges are based on availability of cage-free eggs and have completion dates that are either not stated or are 2025 or later.
The answer to how long U.S. egg producers will continue to have a market for cage-produced eggs will come from a combination of how quickly other farms convert to cage-free production and how many consumers actually are willing to pay more for cage-free eggs at retail.