Cage-free eggs: marketing animal welfare to consumers

Cage-free eggs are suddenly everywhere. Along with “certified humane” beef, “cage-free” is one of marketers’ favourite new buzzwords. Walmart, McDonalds, Denny’s – some of the world’s largest corporations have jumped on board the cage-free bandwagon. And for good reason.

cage-free eggs

This is what cage-free looks like – via pixabay

For years, animal rights organizations have been trying to wake consumers up to the horrific conditions suffered by factory farmed hens. Layer hens often next in cages the size of a sheet of typing paper.

Cages sound bad. And mean. Are they?

Unsurprisingly, this cages people feel bad. And as marketers everywhere know, exploiting guilt is one of the easiest ways to consumers hearts. “Choosy moms choose Jif” – what kind of monster would give their kids anything else?!

Likewise, if you care about chickens, marketers argue, you don’t put them in cages. So it’s pretty clear from a marketing standpoint, cage-free eggs are the way to go. But what about the actual ethics involved?

That’s a little more complicated. It seems like cage-free is a no-brainer. Except it’s not. It just sound nicer.

Anna Hui wrote a great article in Canada’s Globe and Mail last week about the rising popularity of cage-free eggs. The article points out that cage-free is not much of an improvement over its battery cage counterpart. In spite of a small increase in space, chickens still can’t engage in their natural nesting behaviours, so to the chickens, it makes little difference.

Cage-free eggs

Cage-free eggs are not the same as pasture raised (i.e., chickens in the field, scavenging for insects and soaking up the sunshine) or even free range (chickens that have occasional access to the outdoors). People are starting to figure this out. In fact, the restaurant chain Denny’s just got in trouble for a cute commercial they made portraying chickens ambling freely on something akin to Old MacDonald’s farm as a way to market their decision to go cage-free.

By the way, if this issue interests you, I strongly suggest visiting the link to the Globe and Mail article taking a look at Costco’s organic chickens. You can see a photo of their halfway through the article. Is that what you envisioned?

The average Canadian ate 18 dozen eggs last year, nearly one per day. This adds up to 600 million dozen. That’s a lot of eggs, and requires . Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s a logistical possibility to give all those hens the space they really need.

What is the humane choice?

If you truly care about animals, the best and most consistent way to protect them is to stop using them for animal agriculture.

If you plan to continue eating animal products, eating less is probably far more important that what label is on the products you buy. A label might make you feel better, but it’s almost impossible to really know how the animals are actually being treated, and it’s impact is much smaller. Sorry.

As the Globe and Mail article points out, unless you are paying $9-11 a dozen, you are not getting pasture-raised eggs, which is what most consumers really want. Even then, don’t forget, male chicks are completely useless (unless you’re a backyard farmer, and then they might be raised and eaten). This means at least 50% of chickens from layer breeds are killed right after emerging from their eggs.

Vegan Alternatives

Fortunately, more options are cropping up! Hampton Creek Farms, a silicon valley startup specializing in vegan foods, is following up its smash  hit Just Mayo (egg-free mayonnaise) with Just Scramble (egg-free scrambled eggs). Early reviews are very positive and I am really looking for Just Scramble’s arrival this fall.

In the meantime, Follow Your Heart has released a product it calls The Vegan Egg. It isn’t available in Canada at this time, but you can find it on Amazon.com and specialty shops. My husband has been bugging me to try it (he loves eggs and would like to stop buying them), so maybe I’ll have to order some and do a review!

8 Responses to “Cage-free eggs: marketing animal welfare to consumers

  • I just want to drop a line to tell you how much I’m loving your site. It’s a refreshing point of view on Animal Ethics and the world definitely needs more of this! Off to read the rest of your posts now.

  • I hate to think of these poor chickens in those horrible conditions and how companies try to fool the public with labeling. When driving to work today I saw a truck of chickens in tiny cages probably going to slaughter. It was so upsetting that I cried all the way to work. I’m still shaken by it.

    It’s great that you’re getting the word out about these atrocities and the humane alternatives.

    • The whole thing seems gets worse the more you look into it. Sometimes I almost wish I didn’t know what was going on, but I know that it’s important to see the world with open eyes. Thank you for your comment, Mary Ellen, and for all you do to show people we can live beautifully without animal products!

  • Great post exposing the truth behind these misleading labels! My partner is by no means a vegan so I always find it interesting watching him read each egg carton at the store and trying to find the most “humane” eggs available. I refuse to help him because I know humane eggs don’t exist and I’d rather just encourage him to eat less eggs rather than worrying about the labels!

    • Hi Vicky,
      I know exactly what you mean! My husband does the same thing, even though he knows better (I can’t wait for Hampton Creek to come out with Just Scramble – I think that will make it pretty easy to convince the family stop buying eggs). I’d definitely rather people ate less eggs, because most of the labels are clearly marketing. I started wondering what was going on when I noticed one of the popular organic brands from BC started carrying multiple types of eggs – cage-free, humane, free-range, organic – and assorted combinations of the above!

      Thanks for stopping by!
      Margaret

  • It’s so true that the “cage free” label is, to put it politely, misleading.

    “Cage Free” merely means that the hens are crammed by the thousands (and often tens of thousands) into sheds with no windows and no access to the outdoors. Their beaks are still snipped off to keep them from killing one another from the stress of their living conditions. The males are still killed the day they hatch (not humanely either).

    With so many excellent alternatives to eggs (flax meal, apple sauce, smashed banana or chia meal for baking in addition to the ones you point out above) there really is no reason to continue the distressful and disgusting practice of factory farming eggs.

    • So true! I was shocked when I learned that “certified humane” labelling actually REQUIRES farmers to “trim” their chicken’s beaks (probably because they resort to cannibalism from the stress of being crammed into suffocating sheds). The group actually had this bizarre defensive piece on their website arguing that trimming was totally different than de-beaking (nonsense, they use the same machine!). Anyway, I totally agree – lots of good alternatives, and to me, nothing is worth that much suffering.

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