Since I started writing for Egg Industry at the end of 2015, I’ve found myself in few casual conversations about cage-free eggs. It’s a center of my attention, as well as the entire egg industry, but – I’ve found – it’s pretty far off the radar for many others.

When talking cage-free with the uninitiated, I am surprised by the common ignorance of the origin of the humble yet ubiquitous egg, and the passionate defense of beliefs about animal welfare and nutrition. I quickly find out when someone is dug in and move on after a polite attempt to educate them. Few people, I suppose, really care that much about eggs.

Selling to consumers on cages versus free-range

One night, watching local news in Kansas City, I saw something unexpected: an advertisement specifically about cage-free eggs. The 15-second spot, which can be seen here, featured a shot of a battery cage house and asked “would you prefer your eggs from here?”, then cut to an idyllic barnyard and a woman in bib overalls asking cheerfully “or here?” Later that week, I saw a billboard on a major interstate highway using the same tactic and asking the same question.

The ads were for Natural Grocers – listed on the New York Stock Exchange as Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage, Inc. – a Lakewood, Colorado, specialty grocer founded in 1955 that now operates 136 stores in 19 states. The company’s 2016 Annual Report said its net sales grew to $706.5 million in its fiscal 2016 from the $336.4 million it reported in its fiscal 2012 – its rookie year on Wall Street. In the same period, its more modest net income grew to $11.4 million from $6.6 million.

In October 2016, the chain began to sell only free-range eggs “from chickens that are not only cage-free but also provided with sufficient space to move,” advancing its previous policy of selling only cage-free eggs. Its explanation reasons large scale cage-free production is deceiving for consumers.

“New cage-free facilities could turn into little more than floor-to-ceiling enclosures that may allow hens some freedom of movement, but cram hundreds of thousands of hens into a single barn,” its egg standards statement reads. “We don’t think this is what consumers really have in mind when they reach for that carton of cage-free eggs.”

Will marketers and activists push consumers toward the extreme option?

While Natural Grocers is a small player among the nation’s grocers, the move – as well as the language of its annual report – signifies the company is feeling the pressure as the once fringe organic, natural, free-range, etc. movement becomes more main stream. If Wal-Mart and McDonalds are selling cage-free eggs, how is Natural Grocers, or any similar store, special?

Apparently, as cage-free becomes standard, the true believers will need to continue to push the envelope to prove themselves. This is troubling for egg farmers because, as we’ve learned, animal welfare activists whispering in the ears of CEOs and consumers alike aren’t stopping and will always keep moving the goal line further and further away.

But the activists don’t buy eggs. The average, uniformed and apathetic consumer does. What will they ultimately prefer? Cheaper eggs from hens housed in cages or cage-free houses, or far more expensive free-range eggs? If the egg industry, along with its allies in animal agriculture, don’t start educating consumers on the origin and merits of its products, then the activists pushing for the extreme option certainly will.

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