Could China’s egg industry go cage-free?

While the term free range may be familiar to Chinese consumers, cage-free is not. Significant change will be needed both up- and downstream for egg producers to benefit from abandoning traditional cages.

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Paper egg carton with white eggs and conceptual word, CAGE FREE, isolated on white background.
Paper egg carton with white eggs and conceptual word, CAGE FREE, isolated on white background.
Chinese consumers are not familiar with the term cage-free, meaning that education would be necessary to grow demand for cage-free eggs to be successful in the market. lawcain |

Ninety percent of China’s egg farms use traditional cages, but might the country one day become cage-free?

A paper published in the journal Animal Frontiers, jointly authored by researchers in Canada and China, suggests that, while there is some Chinese interest in cage-free eggs, numerous barriers would need to be overcome for the country to transition to cage-free egg production.

In 2020, 3.3 billion laying hens were reared in China and, while various production models are followed, the majority of egg production is from caged birds.

There is, however, some demand for eggs from cage-free birds. The paper’s authors note there are 50 international food businesses in the country that have committed to sourcing only cage-free eggs by the middle of the decade.

It has been estimated that around 1.2 million eggs will be needed to satisfy these commitments. This, however, would account for only 0.0002% of the country’s egg output.

What consumers want

Chinese consumers look at more than simply price when making egg purchasing decisions; size and color are also important.

Some have expressed an interest in nutritional value, food safety, the environment and free range. However, production methods and welfare are not easily identifiable.

Eggs sold in supermarkets and markets are only sometimes packaged, and even when they are, relying on on-pack information is not always easy when false or misleading labelling can occur.

Nevertheless, a study conducted in 2022 in Chonquing, China’s fourth largest city, found that consumers do have a preference for eggs labelled free-range and were prepared to pay a premium. The study found that higher income consumers, pregnant women and those with children were more likely to choose free range. Those consumers that understood and trusted labels were also more likely to choose free-range eggs.

An earlier study conducted in China’s most populous state, Jiangsu, in 2014, found that the two most important factors influencing egg purchasing decisions were nutrition and free-range production.

Cage-free not known

While consumers may express an interest in free-range production, the term cage free is not commonly used by consumers, the paper’s authors note.

In 2020, consultancy firms IQC and FAI Farms conducted a consumer survey that found that 40.5% of participants reported purchasing free-range eggs, but that only 6.3% reported purchasing cage-free, suggesting that these consumers were unaware of the overlap.

Welfare awareness growing

While the term cage free may be largely unknown, there is growing awareness of the term animal welfare.

In 2011, only a third of the Chinese public surveyed said that they had heard the term. By, 2019, however, three quarters of participants expressed familiarity with the term.

What’s holding producers back?

In 2020, interviews with conventional egg producers found that a number of issues were holding them back from switching to cage-free production.

Among their concerns was that consumers would not pay more for cage-free eggs. They also cited a lack of trustworthy food labelling, a lack of land, restrictions related to environmental policies and challenges related to managing cage free systems.

Addressing these issues, the authors believe, may encourage producers to adopt cage-free production.

Chinese Consumer Examining EggsProduct labels are a common way to communicate production attributes, but consumers must not only understand messaging but also trust it. PonyWang |


Measures to address welfare

There are, currently, no laws or regulations in China on animal welfare or cage-free production, but there are various voluntary standards, corporate assurance programs, awards and labelling schemes, which may help to improve welfare on cage-free farms.

Additionally, there are two industry formulated standards that cover cage-free egg production. The Farm Animal Welfare Requirements: Layer Hens, was introduced in 2017, followed, in 2021, by Evaluation Guidelines of Cage Free Production.

The 2017 standard covers animal welfare in caged- and cage-free systems, while the 2021 standard is focused solely on cage-free systems.

What next?

The authors note that before China’s egg producers can move to cage-free production, there needs to be a better understanding of what the country’s consumers value and the messaging strategies that would work for them.

Additionally, a better understanding of what constitutes welfare will need to be developed, addressing local challenges and offering solutions. Given the variety of conditions on the cage-free farms that currently operate in the country, the resolution of welfare issues will need to be tailored to specific contexts.

The authors also note that, while various animal welfare schemes have been proposed, more work will have to be done to assess how effectively they could be implemented on farm.


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