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Government & Politics

How the Cage-Free Movement Is Changing Ohio's $574 Million Egg Industry

eggs
CC FLICKR

Ohio is the second largest egg-producing state in the U.S., and that means big industry changes as consumer demand pushes more retailers to move to cage-free hens. 

Several months ago, McDonald’s joined other retailers that want their eggs produced by cage-free hens.  The fast-food chain has considerable clout; it buys 2 billion eggs every year. 

Why the shift?  Lauren Ketcham of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association says McDonald's is responding to consumer demand.

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“The more the public knows about how their food is produced, the more that environmental and animal welfare concerns are brought into the spotlight and industry is forced to change,” Ketcham says.

Home on the range
These hens on a Southern Ohio farm are fortunate.  They roam freely in a large, grassy enclosure, feasting on worms and laying their eggs in an attached hen house. 

Most hens used in ‘industrial’ egg production never go outside. Millions live out their lives in cages with about 60-square inches of space.  Their warehousing is directly linked, say experts, to consumer expectations for low food prices. Michael Lilburn is an Ohio State University animal-science professor.

“We have the richest country in the world but yet we pay the least amount of our per capita income for food. And so a lot of our management practices per se have really been driven by what consumers expect or are willing to pay for food,” Lilburn says.

The economics of eggs
But now it seems consumers are willing to pay more if their eggs are produced under different conditions. In response, egg producers want the Ohio Department of Agriculture to allow them to make changes in their operations.

“There are several facilities that are asking to change their permit to allow them to go construct or remodel to newer styles for the cage free,” says the department’s Kevin Elder.

Elder says that converting to cage-free egg production will be expensive. Fewer hens can be housed in cage-free buildings so additional housing has to be constructed. 

“It will cost a lot of money. The cost is tremendous. Many of these buildings, just to remodel, are millions of dollars for 100,000 birds.  So as you get more and more numbers and more buildings and new facilities, the investment is pretty amazing,” Elder says.

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Credit SAM HENDREN
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SAM HENDREN
A modern cage-free facility does not necessarily mean free-range, but chickens do have room to roam.

Those cage-free hens need more heat and eat more feed than their caged counterparts, says OSU’s Lilburn, who says the price-tag for all of this is a mystery.

“I don’t know that we really know what the cost of the cage-free systems are going to be over time."

On its website, Versailles, Ohio egg producer Weaver Brothers crows about building new organic, cage-free farms that will house several million birds. 

Repeated phone calls requesting an interview went unanswered. I asked the Ohio Poultry Association’s Jim Chakeres about that. He told me, “Mr. Weaver will not be talking.”  I asked Chakeres if producers are reluctant to speak.

“Maybe reluctant’s not the right word.  They’re just not sure how all of this is coming together and so there’s just not a lot to discuss at this time,” Chakeres says.

The future of cage-freeIt’s unclear what the cage-free conversion means for Ohio’s economy.  Ohio produces approximately 9 billion eggs a year. 

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Credit LUKE JONES / CC FLICKR
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CC FLICKR
Chickens on a small farm roam freely, and come home to roost.

Cage-free is also not a panacea says the agriculture department’s Kevin Elder.

“The cost per bird is a lot higher with the cage-free. The loss of eggs is higher because there’s more of a chance for damage. There’s potentially more exposure to salmonella and other diseases because of those changes."

Experts say the cost of cage-free produced eggs will be more expensive, but still affordable.