The Egg Industry Center Issues Forum in Chicago April 20-21, brought together egg producers, trade association representatives, some researchers and even a few activists and representatives from McDonald’s, and, as expected, the hot topic was cage-free egg purchase pledges. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) representative at the forum was the only person who was smiling throughout the two days of presentations and discussions.

Egg producers aren’t happy because they are facing what could be a cumulative $6-10 billion capital outlay to convert an industry that still has around 90 percent of its birds in cages to cage-free. Lenders aren’t happy, according to Jeff Coit, vice presdient, Farm Credit Services of America, because of the uncertainty over what actual consumer acceptance will be of cage-free eggs and whether or not the price that egg producers receive will be consistent and high enough to pay off the loans for the new systems. Just to make the financing of cage-free a little more interesting, you have to consider that houses with cages aren’t as good for loan collateral as they once were since we don’t know how long their useful life will be, Coit reported.

Even activists groups, like World Wildlife Federation, represented by one of its vice presidents, Carlos Saviani, aren’t happy about the cage-free movement, because it puts a subjective evaluation of bird welfare in the driver’s seat ahead of environmental sustainability measures. Simply put, cage housing has a smaller environmental footprint than does cage-free, so more resources to produce eggs means less land for wildlife.

By the time the two McDonald’s executives, Jill Scandridge Manata, vice president, global public affairs and engagement, and Dr. Justin Ransom, senior director of supply chain management and quality systems, took the podium as the last speakers of the conference, they had to know that they had proverbial targets on their backs as they started their presentations. I have already written about how McDonald’s cage-free purchase pledge was likely a tipping point for cage-free eggs in the U.S., but I don’t think it is fair to lay blame for this decision with McDonald’s.

Be prepared for next public relations battle

No egg purchaser, whether it is McDonald’s or Walmart, lost the public relations battle over cage housing in the U.S.; egg producers did. As Manata and Ransom explained, the entire issue of confinement, whether it is cages for hens or crates for sows, is now perceived negatively in our popular culture. Agriculture in general, and, in the case of cages, egg producers, didn’t make a case for confinement that resonated with the general public. The activists beat agriculture at the public relations game, period.

Now it is time to get over it and make sure that we don’t lose the inevitable next battles. Some egg producers don’t want to embrace and defend aviaries because they are still clinging to cages, because they think retailers will keep stocking cage-produced eggs as long as some consumers prefer the lower price. It would be nice if they are correct, but I am not certain they are. At this point my fear is that some of the defenders of cages will disparage aviaries and in doing so they will aid the inevitable next push of activists, to have all hens housed free-range. Remember that the activists' end goal is no animal agriculture -- not getting hens out of cages and sows out of crates.

Egg producers need to accept that the desire for cage-free eggs is emotional and that science and logic didn’t have anything to do with it. We don’t have to be happy about this, but we need to accept it and start looking at cage-free systems the way consumers will, meaning we need to fix the shortcomings and make sure we learn how to manage these systems and keep improving them. Like it or not, a lot of hens are coming out of cages and it is up to egg producers to make it work. If egg producers aren’t proactive, the alternative to aviaries isn’t going to be keeping birds in cages, the alternative will be free-range.