Despite cage-free eggs being commonplace in Europe, in certain markets making this change to cage-free systems has remained challenging. Case studies into two of these markets, Poland, and Spain, have been completed to investigate why a switch to humane egg production has not yet been made.
In response to the European Citizen Initiative (ECI) “End the Cage Age” initiated and coordinated by Compassion, which received over 1.4 million signatures, the European Commission, in June 2021, committed to publish draft legislative proposals by the end of 2023 to ban cages for all farm species in the EU. However, this promised legislative reform seems to now be stalled, despite the results of a recent Eurobarometer on animal welfare showing that 91% of Europeans think that protecting the welfare of farm animals is important, and that 84% of them believe farm animals should be better protected than they are currently (europa.eu). It is therefore more important than ever to continue driving change for animals in Europe through voluntary standards, while we wait for new legislative standards to be adopted. The EU is cage free eggs with 60.3% of laying hens in cage free systems (agriculture.ec.europa.eu). Despite cage-free eggs being commonplace in Europe, in certain markets making this change to cage-free systems has remained challenging. Case studies into two of these markets, Poland, and Spain, have been completed to investigate why a switch to humane egg production has not yet been made.
Poland remains an important player in the European egg market, producing 7.9% of the total number of eggs in 2022, and the 6th largest producer after France, Germany, Spain, Italy, and The Netherlands. Poland is also the 2nd biggest exporter of eggs in the EU (after The Netherlands), with 17.9% of total EU exports in 2022. ().
Caged systems remain the most common production system used in Poland, although the proportion of caged hens is gradually decreasing, from 81% in 2020 to 71,8% in 2022. In 2022, 21,3% of laying hens were kept in indoor barn systems, 6,2% in free range systems, and 0,7% in organic systems (agriculture.ec.europa.eu).
The war between Russia and Ukraine during 2022 and 2023 has had a negative impact on transition to cage free eggs. Energy price hikes and the rising cost of fertiliser and feed have impacted the market and impeded new investment in cage free systems.
Barn egg production is about 20% (free range approx. 30%) more expensive than caged production. When market prices are low, "welfare premiums” on eggs may ensue. However, during major crises such as the 2022/2023 war in Ukraine, the profitability of egg production in cage-free systems decreases compared to caged systems due to the escalating costs.
The total cost of transitioning from caged production to barn production (aviaries) is estimated between 1.7 billion and 2.1 billion zloty ( Odejście od chowu klatkowego zwierząt gospodarskich w Polsce. Koszty i korzyści. Analiza społeczno-ekonomiczna. Jarosław Urbański)" The link is: https://www.zobsie.pl/raporty/26-odejcie-od-chowu-klatkowego-zwierzt-gospodarskich-w-polsce-koszty-i-korzyci-analiza-spoeczno-ekonomiczna)
Other barriers slowing down the transition to cage-free production in Poland during last 2 years include (bestpracticehens.eu)
Despite these difficulties, we are encouraged to see industry progressing with their cage free commitments. Leading retailers Biedronka, Kaufland, Carrefour, Lidl, Auchan, Żabka, Aldi, Netto, Schiever made cage free commitments several years ago and are continually reporting year-on-year progress.
These companies are to be applauded with some not only having achieved their goals to be 100% cage free for shell eggs, but they have also extended their commitments to include all products containing eggs sold under their own brands:
In challenging times, Poland is making good progress in its cage-free transitions, and millions of laying hens are profiting from better welfare conditions.
In Spain, cage-free egg production has increased by a 15% in the last year, now accounting for 36% of the total volume of eggs sold. The number of cage-free hens has increased by 18%, up to 14.86 million hens. That means that a further 2.3 million birds are now in cage free systems.
The percentage of caged hens in Spain remains high at 68.6% of the national flock, second only to Poland, despite the highest year-on-year decreases recorded.-
The various operators involved in the egg sector have reported difficulty in making progress on their cage free commitments related to several issues/factors. Manufacturers, for example, report the following issues:
The main retailers in Spain already have a cage-free commitment.
Lidl, Alcampo and Grupo Avícola Rujamar have already reached 100% of their commitments, and there are more committed and reporting their progress every year, such as Carrefour Spain, DIA Group, Eroski and Aldi Spain.
In the producer sector, we highlight Huevos Guillén, which continues to make great progress in its transition process.
These commitments are driven by a growing awareness from Spanish consumers about the provenance of their food and support for cage-free production.
While the cage free market has grown in the US, the shift in Canada has pivoted towards enriched cage systems for laying hens. Enriched cages are not acceptable higher welfare systems
The USA’s cage free market has been growing steadily since a large shift in 2016 due to consumer demands for higher welfare systems. As of October 2023 an estimated 38% of the market in the US is cage free (www.ers.usda.gov), a significant increase from 15% in 2018. Cage-Free legislation for laying hens have only been passed in 10 states and (ers.usda.gov, www.ers.usda.gov ) which may prevent complete sourcing of higher welfare eggs as they may not be available in specific areas. While the cage free market has grown in the US, the shift in Canada has pivoted towards enriched cage systems for laying hens. Enriched cages are not acceptable higher welfare systems.
Enriched Cages in Canada
Canada's cage-free egg movement started in a similar fashion to the United States in 2016 amid heavy consumer dissent about conventional caged systems for egg-laying hens.
While farming practices are shifting away from conventional cages to cage-free systems in the United States, enriched cages have become the new normal for laying hen housing in Canada. Enriched cages are similar to conventional cages, just with slightly (~20%) more space to move around, and small areas in the cage dedicated to “enrichments”, such as a nesting area, perching bar, and dustbathing mat. While these “furnished cages” are a slight improvement from their predecessor, in terms of space these are still cages.
Enriched cages are not higher welfare
Hens housed in enriched cages cannot fly up to a high perch to escape being feather pecked, their litter area is limited to a small plastic mat with a sprinkling of feed for foraging, and effective dustbathing is not possible for all hens on the predominantly wire cage floors.
Research (hen-welfare-in-alternative-systems.pdf) has shown enriched cages fail to provide hens with the variety of spaces they need to perform many of their natural behaviors important to their welfare, including perching, foraging, dustbathing, wing flapping and stretching.
Tiers of crowded enriched cages stacked in barns also make it difficult for the farmers to inspect the hens, meaning injured birds are often left to suffer and die unnoticed.
For the most part, the Canadian egg industry has remained caged. The current percentage of cage-free egg production is approximately 17%, a mere 3% increase from 2018. In contrast, egg production from enriched cages has increased by about 17% (from 14% to 32%) within that same timeframe (Egg Farmers of Canada, 2022). Sadly, enriched cages have been heralded by the Canadian egg industry as the solution to transitioning away from battery cage systems. But enriched systems are still a cage, so cannot be seen as anything but misguided, and a risky investment not fit for the future.
Canadians want cage free eggs
The desire for a cage-free future has been expressed by Canadian residents. In a recent survey conducted by Bryant Research, 75% of Canadian residents believe that enriched cages are unsuitable environments for laying hens. Furthermore, 79% of respondents agree that food companies should develop commitment policies that ban cages for egg-laying hens within their supply chain (Bryant Research, 2023). This data demonstrates consumer demand for eggs from cage-free hens in Canada. Unfortunately, producers are actively transitioning and investing in systems that do not deliver on the improved welfare standards that Canadian consumers expect.
Despite the rise of enriched cages, there are still Canadian food companies that remain committed to improving the welfare of laying hens by sourcing cage-free eggs. As shown in other regions, increased consumer support, industry pressure and producer transparency are essential in reducing caged systems for laying hens. With these practices in place, Canadian companies can deliver on their cage-free eggs commitments and their promises to Canadian consumers to meaningfully improve laying hen .
The Asia-Pacific market is the fastest-growing cage-free market due to increased demand, product innovation, and increased disposable income.
An estimated 89.2% of commercial egg production is from conventional cages in the Asia-Pacific region, with just 1.4% of hens in free-range and organic systems (Guyonnet, ). However, the Asia-Pacific market is the fastest-growing cage-free market due to increased demand, product innovation, and increased disposable income.
The implementation of 2025 cage-free commitments in China are slow. For example, Aldi is committed to being cage free (on shell eggs only) by 2025, however the retailer is reporting no progress yet.
Cage-free egg production accounts for only 10% of China’s annual output (which is over 600 billion eggs; FAO, 2022) and therefore it is difficult for retailers to meet their supply requirements (The Poultry Site, 2022).
The term “cage-free” (非笼养) is not commonly used in China’s market at present, and no peer-reviewed literature has examined consumer preferences for cage-free eggs in depth. There may be a lack of awareness of what “cage-free” means; in a survey by FAI Farms and IQC in 2020, 80% of respondents reported being unsure of what “cage-free” eggs are and do not recognise the value of cage-free production (The Poultry Site, 2022). Consumers tend to have a greater focus on things like food safety and price. Cage-free eggs can cost up to three times as much as caged eggs, and consumers may not be incentivised to pay more for higher welfare products. This may be due to a lack of education, clear labelling and messaging on pack, and on marketing the higher welfare attributes of cage-free eggs. (Yang, 2011; The Poultry Site, 2022). (reviewed in Chen et al., 2023)
Along with a lack of specific farm animal welfare legislation and standards, producers and food companies may lack incentives to move to cage-free egg production. For example, they may not see an immediate return on investment and there is a lack of availability of differentiated markets, especially for newly transitioned producers (
While it's true that progress among international brands promoting cage-free practices in China has been relatively slow in recent years, the companies we've engaged with remain resolute in their conviction that animal welfare and cage-free eggs are in line with the core principles of sustainable livestock development. They are willing to actively participate in this transformation and remain committed to these principles.
We've been proactively working with retailers to encourage the adoption of cage-free eggs in the market, and maintain close collaboration with egg producers on the feasibility and quality of cage-free practices.
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