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Cage-free eggs: 5 things you need to know

Justina Huddleston is an editor and the head writer for TDmonthly Magazine. She has been a freelance writer for several years, though her real passion is cooking. You can see the recipes she creates on her vegan food blog, A Life of Litt...

Major companies are making the switch to cage-free, but what does that really mean?

The hottest trend among fast-food restaurants and supermarkets isn't Sriracha sauce or fried chicken sandwiches — it's pledging to transition to cage-free eggs.

Popular retailer Trader Joe's is the latest store promising to switch to cage-free. Currently 62 percent of the eggs it sells come from cage-free hens, but now it's pledging to push that number to 100 percent by 2025.

Meanwhile, McDonald's, Taco Bell, Starbucks and Panera Bread have all made the pledge too. But what does the switch to cage-free eggs really mean?

1. Cage-free systems are much better for the chickens

Conventionally raised laying hens live out their lives in battery cages. These cages are the size of an iPad (the chickens can't spread their wings) and are stacked together so tightly that disease can spread quickly from chicken to chicken, leading to heavy use of antibiotics. Caged chickens also can't nest, and laying their eggs in the open causes a great deal of stress. They're also not able to perch or dust bathe. These instinctual behaviors are akin to the basic natural urges of any animal — imagine if a cat was in a cage too small to be able to move around and properly groom himself and had nowhere to scratch!

Cage-free eggs, on the other hand, are laid by chickens who are able to walk and run around on the ground. They can spread their wings, and the majority of cage-free egg operations have perching and dust-bathing areas so that chickens can, well, act like chickens.

More: Starbucks jumps on the cage-free egg bandwagon, pledges to switch by 2020

2. But they’re still not ideal

Cage-free laying hens still face a lack of space. Most of them are confined to large warehouses where thousands of chickens are kept for the duration of their lives. To maximize profits, farmers keep things pretty cramped, and usually the birds don't have access to the outdoors. So if you're imagining a chicken running around a field, plucking grubs out of the soil, you've got another thing coming.

As with caged laying hens, the chickens are purchased from hatcheries where male chicks are killed as soon as they hatch, to the tune of 200 million each year. Then the average laying hen is sent to slaughter when it is 2 years old, which is just half a chicken's normal life span.

And both caged and cage-free laying hens often have parts of their beaks trimmed off (with no anesthesia) so that they can't injure other birds (or themselves) by pecking — behavior that results from being kept in such close quarters with so many other birds.

Nevertheless, there is a huge improvement in the quality of life for cage-free laying hens versus battery cage-raised laying hens, so it's definitely a step in the right direction.

3. Cage-free eggs will cost more — at first

Due to the tight supply, cage-free eggs tend to cost more than conventional eggs do. In fact, egg producers in California have already complained that "retailers add big markups to cage-free eggs that distort the actual increase in the cost of producing them."

The good news is that most restaurants don't expect the cost of their products to go up once they're fully converted to cage-free. As cage-free eggs become the norm, the price difference should disappear, at least once the new farming systems are in place. Until then, though, you may see a price hike.

More: Taco Bell hustles to get cage-free eggs on its menu

4. It'll take a while to make the change

Why are so many companies taking years to put their cage-free sourcing into play? The fact is the current demand for cage-free eggs outstrips the actual supply. What's more, poultry farmers who want to make the switch must completely overhaul their facilities. It's expensive, and it can't be done overnight.

For instance, if McDonald's switched to cage-free eggs today, those 13 million eggs a year would use up all but 2 percent of the country's cage-free egg supply.

Now that other massive chains are clamoring to get cage-free eggs in their stores too, there simply aren't enough to go around. That's where the delay comes in — it will take a while for farmers to change their operations and start putting more cage-free eggs on the market.

5. These cage-free egg pledges prove that consumers have power

Why are all these companies making the switch to cage-free eggs? It's because we asked them to.

McDonald's USA president Mike Andres said in a statement about going cage-free, "Our customers are increasingly interested in knowing more about their food and where it comes from... Our decision to source only cage-free eggs reinforces the focus we place on food quality and our menu to meet and exceed our customers’ expectations."

"We are a brand that has our finger on the pulse of not only what appeals to our customers' tastes but also the issues they care most about, and they tell us they want food that’s simple and easy to understand,” Brian Niccol, CEO of Taco Bell Corp., said in its announcement of switching to cage-free.

It's pretty cool to think that if we make enough noise about these issues, real change can actually occur. So don't forget to stay involved in the issues you care about — it turns out that speaking out about what you want as a consumer can actually make a big difference.

More: McDonald's is switching to cage-free eggs, but it's going to take 10 years

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