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The biggest animal welfare success of the past 6 years, in one chart

Factory farming is spreading, but some of its worst practices are on their way out.

Hens in cages at a conventional egg farm.
Edwin Remsburg/VW Pics/Getty Images
Kenny Torrella is a staff writer for Vox’s Future Perfect section, with a focus on animal welfare and the future of meat.

If you research farm animal welfare for long enough, you begin to exist in a strange, paradoxical state: Everything is both getting better and worse at the same time.

Worse, because the cruel factory farming model largely invented in the United States has been exported around the world, which in turn has rapidly increased the number of factory-farmed animals. From 1988 to 2018 — or about the last 30 years — global meat production has increased by 100 percent, while the human population has only grown by about 50 percent.

But things are better, too, because some of the worst factory farming practices are on their way out.

One of those practices is the use of “battery cages” in the egg industry, cages so small that hens can’t even spread their wings. Since the 1960s, egg farmers in the US have predominantly used these cages — but that’s starting to change.

Due to a number of states banning the use of battery cages, and some states even banning the sale of eggs from caged hens, along with big food companies pledging to phase them out of their supply chains, the use of battery cages has been on a rapid decline in the last six years, replaced by cage-free barns.

According to an analysis by the Humane League, one of several animal welfare nonprofits that lobby food companies to improve their animal welfare standards, in 2015, just 6 percent of US hens were raised cage-free. Now, 29 percent are. That’s over 70 million hens out of cages in just six years — easily one of the biggest successes of the animal welfare movement. (Disclosure: I worked on cage-free advocacy as part of my duties in my earlier career, including at the Humane Society of the United States.)

Chart showing the share of hens in cage-free housing has grown from single digits to more than 25 percent over the past decade. Tim Ryan Williams/Vox

To be sure, cage-free hens still have it awful. Most are crowded into dark barns, still have part of their beaks cut off to prevent them from pecking one another, and still face a brutal slaughter. But cage-free barns are markedly less awful, and this enormous change in egg production is cause for measured celebration.

So how did this major shift in our food system happen so quickly? It wasn’t because all of a sudden elected officials and food executives had a change of heart. It happened because for over 15 years, animal welfare advocates chipped away at the problem with a singular, practically obsessive focus.

How the animal welfare movement changed the egg industry

In the early 2000s, advocates began to conduct investigations of battery cage egg farms, exposing a particularly cruel practice most Americans were unfamiliar with. College students campaigned to get their cafeterias to go cage-free. And some sustainability-minded companies, like Whole Foods, became early adopters of cage-free eggs.

Then, in 2008, advocates got a measure on California’s ballot to phase out battery cages (and other practices). Voters approved the measure, and two years later the California legislature updated the law to include a ban on the sale of eggs from caged hens.

“As California goes, so goes the nation” is a cliché, but an accurate and informative one on farm animal welfare.

California’s law gave advocates momentum to help pass laws in a few other states, like Michigan and Oregon, and big food companies slowly started pledging to source cage-free eggs.

As you can see in the chart, things really took off in 2015, which is when the California law went into effect. In 2015 and 2016, advocates ran campaigns to get over 200 food companies to source cage-free eggs by 2025 (some sooner) and in the following years more states passed cage-free bans, including California, which upgraded its law yet again. All of this led to a quadrupling of cage-free eggs in just six years. It was a positive feedback loop of corporate and policy progress feeding off one another.

The progress continues: just last week, Utah became the eighth state to ban battery cages after successful lobbying by the Humane Society of the United States, which has led the efforts on state cage-free measures since the mid-aughts. Once Utah’s law is implemented in 2025, it’ll get nearly 5 million hens out of cages each year and require egg producers to provide some “environmental enrichment,” like perches and nest boxes.

The cage-free progress extends beyond the US, too — the momentum here has sparked cage-free campaigns in other parts of the world, mostly Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Asia, spurred in part from the Humane League’s “Open Wing Alliance” program, which provides grants to animal welfare groups in countries where there is less available funding.

What about the hundreds of millions of US hens still in cages?

Despite the progress, there are some reasons to temper optimism.

First, as noted above, factory farming is so terrible for animal welfare that even after big changes are implemented — like banning cages — farm animals’ existence is still miserable. Getting rid of cages, one of the worst factory farming practices, is the first in a long list of practices advocates want to phase out (in addition to persuading consumers to eat fewer eggs, or switch to plant-based eggs).

Second, meat industry trade groups are suing to halt the implementation and even overturn California’s latest farm animal welfare law. They’ve consistently lost their legal challenges, but anything could happen with Trump-appointed judges throughout the federal judiciary and a conservative Supreme Court.

Third, all those pledges from companies to source cage-free eggs by 2025 are just that —pledges. There’s no legal enforcement to hold them to their word, but advocates are monitoring which ones are on track.

It’s important to look at what supermarkets are doing, since over half of all eggs are sold in cartons on store shelves. Some are either not reporting progress, like Publix, ALDI, and Food Lion, or have made modest progress, like Walmart. On the other hand, Trader Joe’s is already at 60 percent cage-free, while Kroger is at 23 percent and Albertsons is at 28 percent.

Restaurant chains that serve a lot of breakfast food (and thus a lot of eggs) are also a mixed bag: McDonald’s is almost halfway there, while Dunkin’ Donuts and IHOP are at just 11 and 5 percent, respectively. And some chains aren’t budging — Denny’s, Carl’s Jr., and Hardee’s haven’t reported progress, while Wendy’s cage-free egg policy applies to just about 5 percent of their locations.

To get the remaining 71 percent of hens out of cages, advocates will need a lot to go right: courts to uphold California’s law, more states to ban cages, and big food companies to follow through on their pledges.

There’s reason to believe these companies, or at least a lot of them, could follow through by 2025, since some of the big ones that pledged to transition earlier — around 2020 — report they are now 100 percent cage-free, like Taco Bell and Unilever.

However, it’s important to note that this is all good-faith reporting; food companies aren’t making their egg purchase orders public or getting audited. Rather, they are providing updates in their annual corporate responsibility reports, which means advocates and the general public have to take them at their word.

That may be asking a lot, as plenty of corporations have been accused of exaggerating sustainability claims, known as “greenwashing,” or not following through on sustainability goals.

And there’s one last reason to temper optimism: we don’t yet know if there will even be enough cage-free eggs by 2025 to meet the demands of the new laws and corporate pledges. Some in the egg industry say there won’t be.

At the same time, some of the biggest US egg companies are bullish on cage-free production. The second biggest, Rose Acre Farms, is at 20 percent cage-free and the third biggest, Versova, is at about 10 percent. MPS Egg Farms, the seventh largest, was at 25 percent as of a year ago, and Herbruck’s, ranked ninth, is at 75 percent cage-free with plans to be at 100 percent by 2024. The top US egg producer, Cal-Maine Foods, says its “specialty eggs” account for 24 percent of their supply, but in a request for comment Cal-Maine declined to disclose what percentage of their specialty egg supply is currently cage-free.

These egg producers have invested hundreds of millions to build new-cage free barns or convert existing ones. Despite these improvements, the cost of cage-free eggs relative to regular eggs has actually fallen in recent years.

For example, if you bought cage-free eggs at the supermarket in late 2016, back when all the fast food chains and grocers were pledging to change their supply, you paid an average of about 11 cents extra per cage-free egg. Today, you might pay about 4 cents extra per cage-free egg. Much of this price drop can probably be attributed to increased supply, brought on by state laws and big companies like McDonald’s demanding cage-free eggs from their suppliers.

The value of putting wins on the board

One could read all this and think, “Really? Making one sector of the food industry a little less miserable is the best the animal welfare movement can do?” And that’s an understandable criticism, considering the scope and severity of factory farming.

But I think you could see it another way, too: A young, tiny movement has changed how an enormous, powerful, and long-intransigent industry does a fundamental part of its business — in under two decades, no less. Despite how modest the reforms are, they are reforms, and they could pave the way for future ones.

Faced with an immense amount of animal suffering, it’s sometimes hard, as an animal welfare researcher, to see a way out of our factory farming food system. But taking the long view, and remembering that change takes time and that change is happening (and celebrating it) certainly helps.

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