Blog: Dean BestNow Wal-Mart puts eggs in cage-free basket

Dean Best | 7 April 2016

When McDonald's announced last September it would switch to using only cage-free eggs in its US and Canadian stores, the pledge from the fast-food giant was seen as a tipping point for the issue in North America. This week came another notable move on cage-free eggs but this time in the retail sector.

McDonald's was by no means the first foodservice operator to announce plans to move to cage-free but, given the Egg McMuffin maker is said to buy around 4% of all eggs in the US, it was a totemic moment for those pushing for hens to be raised more humanely (even if cage-free doesn't quite mean they can peck around outside but more on that below).

Throughout the autumn, winter and into the early months of this year, US restaurant chain after US restaurant chain, from Starbucks to Wendy's, announced their own pledges.

At the same time, we started to hear packaged food manufacturers operating in the US outline their own commitments. The most recent was made this week by Snyder's-Lance, with the US snack maker following in the footsteps of the likes of PepsiCo, Kraft Heinz and Mars this year - and General Mills, Kellogg and Nestle late in 2015, making cage-free pledges.

We also saw food retailers in the US announce plans to make the switch, with Costco, Trader Joe's and Kroger recently setting out their stall. As an aside, Whole Foods has sold only cage-free since 2005.

The decision from Wal-Mart to move to cage-free eggs is being held up as of similar importance to that made by McDonald's last autumn.

"When McDonald’s announced its cage-free policy, we knew that we had turned the corner in the fight against battery cages. But today, that debate ends, and the trajectory of this debate is clear. The era of confining hens in cages in America’s food system is officially sunsetting," Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of animal welfare campaign group The Humane Society of the United States, said, noting Wal-Mart accounts for 25% of the groceries sold in the US.

Wal-Mart has sold cage-free eggs in its US stores since 2001 but its position in the domestic grocery market means the retailer would have had to been sure about securing the necessary supplies by 2025. Nine years may seem a long way out but the egg industry is still in the process of adjusting its supply chain to meet the forecast growth in demand. At present, around only 6% of eggs come from cage-free hens.

With Wal-Mart now on board, the pressure on suppliers to change will only grow - but, with that, ultimately, the cost to the consumer of the hitherto more expensive cage-free eggs should fall.

Some campaigners here in the UK have used Wal-Mart's pledge as an opportunity to call on retailers here to stop selling eggs from caged hens. "If the world’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart, can rid its supply chain of eggs from caged hens, there is simply no excuse for companies in any country to not follow suit," Philip Lymbery, CEO at the UK-based Compassion in World Farming, said.

That said, one UK supplier that claims to have higher welfare standards on eggs is building a growing business in the US - as we found out last month at the Expo West trade show in California.

The Happy Egg Co., a UK-based free-range egg supplier, entered the US market in 2012 and its products are now stocked in 6,500 stores throughout the country.

Subscribers can read our interview with the US arm of The Happy Egg Co. here, in which the company discusses its growth, ambitions for further expansion and its belief its eggs are a "completely different free-range standard" to cage-free.

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