On Jan. 2, a new California law will require that shell eggs sold at retail in the state will come only from hens housed in larger cages, be they resident or non-resident hens. This change comes at a time when egg consumption and prices are both up to historic highs, an increase of 30-35 percent over this time last year.
The California experiment will likely create turmoil in egg markets and push prices higher in 2015. Californians might for a while even find egg counters empty.
The dirty little secret is that the California mandate will mean higher egg prices without buying much in the way of food safety. If we are going to up-end the egg industry with massively costly change, we might have done something more useful — such as invest in more pasteurized egg capacity. But food safety was not really part of the agenda for more elbow room for chickens.
California voters put the state’s egg producers on notice six years ago that, come Jan. 2, 2015, only eggs from hens in larger cages could be sold at retail in the state. Then, after hearing complaints about the disadvantage in-state producers would be under, the California Assembly amended the law to make it apply to out-of-state producers as well.
That was a first. Other states — Michigan, Oregon, and Washington — have adopted their own cage requirements, but only California is restricting trade from other states and foreign countries based on its rules for space requirements for chickens.
Before it took effect, opposing Midwestern egg-producing states were not getting much traction in federal court in California, but that may change once the market dislocation and higher egg prices kick in. Before the new mandate, California egg producers supplied only 1 in 3 eggs consumed in the state.
California consumers demand more eggs from somewhere, and there’s a lot of fog out there about whether enough caging capacity outside of California has been expanded to fulfill that demand within the new constraints of the law. Although they’ve been counting down the years to Jan. 2 since the initiative passed, the new California law does not seems to have had the required impact on how U.S. egg producers shelter their laying hens. And, as many as 95 percent of them might still use so-called battery-cage systems.
That figure might now be reversed within California. The mostly family-owned egg producers inside California have, in the past six years, made the capital investments to comply with Proposition 2 standards, which even they call “vague mandates on housing,” according to the Association of California Egg Farmers.
Changing out battery-cage infrastructure entirely in the U.S. would cost egg producers (or somebody) as much as $ 10 billion. The European Union move to so-called “enriched cages” became effective in 2012, although it is involved in litigation with about a dozen member states that have not gone along. EU producers reportedly spent more than $ 600 million on the changes.
Battery-cage infrastructure not only provides housing for the hens, but also are complex systems for feeding and watering, waste disposal, and collecting the eggs. Egg producers say battery cages help prevent disease and turn out cleaner eggs. Attempts to set a national standard for larger laying-hen cages failed both as standalone bills and as an inclusion to the 2014 Farm Bill.
My take is that, from a food-safety perspective, how cages are managed and operated is more important than design standards for cage sizes.
After the 2010 recalls over the big Salmonella outbreak involving Jack DeCoster’s Iowa egg farms, I was able to tag along with the teams of plaintiff lawyers and experts that the court allowed to go inside that part of the DeCoster kingdom. It was a bio-security area, meaning all these lawyers and experts had to dress up in those “sperm suits” with booties and mesh helmets.
Once inside, however, we all saw birds (including some chickens) freely flying about, rodents, and impressive amounts of manure. Some ares were more crowded than others. While the egg-laying and the feeding and watering continued in a house with about a half-million laying hens, one henhouse wall was literally being busted out from the pressure of all the manure that had been dumped behind it.
The wall was busting out because employees had fallen way behind in removing manure. One told me that heavy spring rains had made it impossible to get the chicken poop removed after it was stored up over the winter. He also said they were short-staffed. It became clear to me that the management and operation of egg-production systems should be the key concern.
It’s easy to think of the size of a cage in isolation, but that’s not realistic for large-scale egg production. These are huge systems that fill barns from floor to ceiling and wall to wall and represent a massive capital investment. Going into this change in California, we have consumers paying $ 4.49 per dozen for grocery store eggs. We can only guess how much more they are going to have to pay for bigger chicken cages.
But it is what it is. California won’t care how many eggs it breaks beginning Jan. 2. There will be all sorts of reactions over the law and treaties. But all that takes time, and everyday people eat eggs. Americans were on track to eat 266 each this year, or 23 dozen for each of us, according to the Egg Industry Center in Ames, IA. We ate five more eggs this year per capita than in 2013, and pricey beef and pork prices are also pushing up our egg consumption.
Every egg comes with some risk of Salmonella. Your risks go up if you often order sunny-side-up eggs, or if you have a taste for lightly soft-boiled eggs, or maybe you opt for Caesar salads. This applies to cage-free farms and even those backyard henhouses, which have been subject to a recent nationwide Salmonella outbreak.
Pasteurized eggs are available in the market. Lansing, IL-based Safest Choice, with an all-natural egg pasteurization process that eliminates Salmonella in eggs, appears to be doing nicely. The process does not change the nutrition or flavor. You can search the Safest Choice website for both nearby retailers and restaurants with pasteurized eggs.
But most eggs are sold raw. And the Salmonella risk is the same whether they are white or brown, conventional or organic. If this truly is the tipping point for somebody spending $ 10 billion to change out the housing for chickens, shouldn’t we get some improved food safety along the way?