Score another win for the nation’s hens.
Fast-casual food chain Shake Shack on Monday joined the ever-growing list of major businesses that have announced plans to switch to using cage-free eggs.
The chain’s 66 places around the world will attain the transition to cage-free eggs by the end of next year, according to an announcement from animal advocacy group the Humane League . Taco Bell announced a similarly accelerated transitionlast month and committed to all its stores utilizing cage-free eggs by December 2016.
Other companies switching to cage-free eggs are expected to take a bit longer to follow through on their announcements. Fast-food giant McDonald’s, as well as Dunkin’ Donuts, Qdoba and Jack in the Box, say the schemed transition will take a decade .
Despite the delay in implementation, Humane League executive director David Coman-Hidy said he feels “very optimistic” about how many food chains and major egg purchasers, such as food service providers Aramark and Compass Group, have committed to changing their policies.
“Ultimately it’s about signaling to the egg industry that the writing is on the wall at this point, ” Coman-Hidy told The Huffington Post. “I think we’re going to see change continue more rapidly than we’re expecting even now.”
So, if the writing is on the wall, why is it taking so long for some companies to attain the switching?
Put bluntly, there is significant demand from customers asking for better treatment of farm animals, but the furnish still has a long way to go to catch up.
Only 8.6 percentage of the commercial egg-laying hens in the country live in cage-free surroundings, according to the latest data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Though this is a dramatic increase from the same period last year, the overwhelming majority of hens are still being held in battery enclosures that are barely larger than they are.
Maro Ibarburu, an associate scientist and business analyst at Iowa State University’s Egg Industry Center, said it will take many egg suppliers more than a decade to switch to a cage-free system, partly because get rid of battery enclosures is an expensive change for farmers to self-finance.
“This is not a trivial decision, ” Ibarburu told HuffPost. “The farmer has to come up with the money to attain the change and as far as I know there’s no help to attain the transition.”
Another factor to the delay has been the patchwork legislative approach to the egg industry’s reliance on battery cages.
Only five states have so far passed any legislation banning or restricting the use of the enclosures. Among them is California, the only state that has banned the sale of eggs from caged hens. Animal welfare groups are pushing a ballot initiative in Massachusetts that would prohibit the sale of such eggs by 2022.
By comparison, the European union approved a sweeping law banning battery enclosures in all its member countries in 1999. That law let egg producers 13 years to switch their systems over.
Often missing from the press releases from the likes of Shake Shack and Starbucks is that cage-free egg production systems come with their own problems — and that “cage-free” is not synonymous with “free-range.”
Cage-free systems — where hens are housed in an enclosed barn , not outdoors — have a hen mortality rate more than double that of traditional systems, according to a three-year analysis released by University of California, Davis researchers earlier this year. Also, the eggs they create are 30 to 40 percentage more expensive than eggs produced through traditional systems.
While Joy Mench, a professor of animal science and one of the UC Davis researchers behind that analyse, was contended that such concerns are not “insurmountable, ” producers still face a sharp learn curve in addressing the challenges cage-free systems present.
“Cage-free systems are much more complicated to manage, ” Mench told. “We may not get some of these health concerns down to the level at which they occur in enclosures, but we can conduct research and the more experience producers gain with the systems, the more they will be reduced.”
Meanwhile, the progress on cage-free eggs also seems to be having a spillover effect animal welfare groups should also take heart in.
As more chains have gone cage-free, Coman-Hidy told, many are also adding more vegetarian options to their menus and phasing out their employ of pork products from gestation crates, two other high-priority issues for groups like the Humane League.
After a banner year of almost nonstop movement on cage-free eggs, Coman-Hidy expects to see even more changes in coming years.
“We’re not just seeing momentum on this issue. We’re insuring momentum across the board, ” he told. “When the average person learns about battery enclosures, they don’t want to support the farms that use them. No one wants to be behind McDonald’s on an animal brutality issue.”
Joseph Erbentraut covers promising innovations and challenges in the areas of food and water. In addition, Erbentraut explores the evolving ways Americans are identifying and defining themselves. Tips? Email joseph.erbentraut @huffingtonpost. com .
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