Despite promises, your eggs probably aren’t cage-free

Deena Shanker

For some time, it seemed like the plight of egg-laying hens confined to cages so small they can’t even spread their wings was ending. Restaurants, retailers, hotels, manufacturers, food service and hospitality groups suddenly recognized that consumer revulsion might cost them real money. So they rushed to announce self-imposed deadlines to go cage-free.

But one animal welfare group monitoring whether companies are fulfilling their pledges has discovered that the large majority of companies that produce and sell egg products and pledged to go cage-free declined to tell them whether they made any progress.

Of 100 companies surveyed, only 27 reported progress, according to Compassion in World Farming’s second annual report, EggTrack. Some, like Hyatt Hotels Corp., did report significant movement while for others it’s been slow-going. Cereal giant Kellogg Co. reported less than 1 percent of the eggs it uses are cage-free, but told Bloomberg it uses few animal products anyway. As for one Kellogg brand that does, Morningstar Farms, it’s exploring ways to convert to vegan options.

Mars Inc., which pledged to go cage-free in its human food products in Europe, the U.S., Canada and Australia by 2020, is listed as “did not report” but told Bloomberg that more than 40 percent of the global volume covered in its cage-free commitment is now compliant and that it still expects to meet its promise. Hilton Hotels & Resorts, meanwhile, promised to be cage-free by the end of last year. Also listed as a “did not report” in EggTrack, the company told Bloomberg that all of its U.S. hotels (including Waldorf Astoria Hotels & Resorts, Conrad Hotels & Resorts, Canopy by Hilton and DoubleTree by Hilton) are now 100 percent cage-free, accounting for a 4 million pound transition, and that it’s attempting to transition globally.

In both cases, CIWF told Bloomberg that it didn’t find this information publicly listed and that the companies didn’t provide it to them. To be fair, switching how a company buys eggs isn’t as simple as checking the label at the supermarket. “At the end of the day, they know their supply chains best,” said Katya Simkhovich, food business manager at CIWF.McDonald’s Corp., which also didn’t report its progress to the group, told Bloomberg it had nothing new to report other than its same self-imposed 2025 deadline, set in 2015.

At Shake Shack, which announced in December 2015 that it would go cage-free within a year, the breakfast eggs (served at only a handful of its 117 U.S. locations) were always cage-free, said Jeffrey Amoscato, vice president of supply chain and menu innovation. But sub-ingredients like the egg white powder for marshmallow fluff are more of a challenge. Amoscato said the company had to contact approximately 100 bakeries that produce their baked goodsto ensure compliance. Many already were using cage-free eggs, and those that weren’t agreed to switch. The company only ended two or three relationships, Amoscato said, adding that “one of the reasons we were able to make the change so quickly is we are relatively small.”

In addition to forced transparency, Simkhovich said she hopes that the annual tracking reportcan help smooth the sometimes bumpy road to more humane supply chains. “There has to be a pacing in the sourcing on the company side so that the producer side can transition,” she said, a reference toreports of cage-free egg gluts. “It’s not overnight for them, either.”