The recent avalanche of cage-free egg commitments in the retail sector has been extraordinary – and very exciting. All the major retailers in the UK are now either already cage-free on their whole eggs, or have committed to be so by 2025. Once these commitments are fulfilled, approximately 4 million hens will be freed from cages every year as a result.
Sadly however, that leaves around 12 million hens in the UK that, without further progress, will remain confined to enriched cage systems each year. These are the hidden cages in our food system, and they must not be forgotten.
Retailer commitments to date are primarily for whole eggs, sold in cartons in stores, which are of course some of the most visible eggs from a consumer point of view. Mandatory method of production labelling for whole eggs also enables the shopper to make an informed choice – and this has arguably played a significant part in consumer pressure for phasing out caged whole eggs in store. But the cage-free baseline shouldn’t be restricted to shop-bought whole eggs. For the hen, of course, it makes no difference where their egg is sold – whether it’s whole in-store, as an ingredient in coffee-shop cake, or served up in a workplace canteen.
This is why we’re calling on the food service sector to also commit to a cage-free future, and help signal the end of all cages, for good.
Some high street chains made the move long ago. In the UK McDonald’s, Pret and Subway are free-range not just on their whole eggs, but on every single egg ingredient served in their stores.
Lots of other popular eateries already offer cage-free egg sandwiches, or a pizza with a free-range egg on top. This is great – but it doesn’t go far enough. What about the eggs in their cakes? Their omelettes? Their pasta? Consumers want to be able to trust that their favourite restaurant or café has done the right thing – and know that any menu choice they make is a cage-free one. Transparent policies and clear communication are needed to give this reassurance.
Making the cage-free move for a food service chain can be a complex business – but as McDonald’s, Pret and Subway (among others) have shown, it can be done. The supply chain can look very different, depending on how, and from whom, their eggs are purchased. Eggs can be bought in a myriad of different forms, including:
- Whole – in their shells, and either served whole or added to recipes in house
- In liquid form (and used in-house, commonly for omelettes, scrambled eggs, and the like) – which may include liquid from the whole egg, or just the yolk or albumen/white)
- In powered form - (which can likewise be from all or part of the egg)
- In pre-bought products – anything from cookies to pasta, sourced from suppliers who in turn source egg products for their manufacturing operations.
We are advocating that food service companies set a deadline of 2025 for a complete transition to cage-free, which allows nine years to steadily shift supply. For companies able to commit to a 5-year timeline, we recognise this with our Good Egg Award.
We appreciate the challenges that these years may hold - finding a ‘new normal’ on supply, price, and even product formulation. Our approach will continue to be to work constructively with food businesses to provide strategic and technical support during this transition. The nine-year timeframe allows for a transition that is manageable for both suppliers and buyers, with public commitments enabling confidence to invest in a system that is fit for the future.
For those worried that this will ‘de-value’ the cage-free egg, this worry is surely misplaced. A steady transition will avoid oversupply, and when cage-free is the ‘new normal’ there is plenty of room for further differentiation in free-range and organic systems with demonstrable welfare outcomes. For now, the important thing is to ensure that all cage-free systems offer a meaningful improvement for the birds, giving hens a good quality of life in rich and stimulating environments.
Let’s not allow the cage to be buried ever-deeper in the supply chain, obscured from view. A cage-free day is within reach, and it’s time for food service companies to clearly signal their intention to be part of this movement.