Tipping point reached on cage-free (commentary)

The days of delivering eggs to market cheaply and efficiently will soon be over.

Trader Joe's, a grocery store chain with every bit of the unquestioned customer loyalty that Chipotle enjoys in the restaurant biz, has decided to get behind the growing cage-free egg movement. The company has announced it will begin selling only cage-free eggs in all stores by 2025 although western U.S. locations will switch by 2020.

"Getting behind" is a phrase that is correct on several levels. The little ripple created by certain activist groups a decade ago grew into a tidal wave in September when McDonald's, that fast-food Monster on the Midway, announced they would pirouette toward cage-free status. Already a step or two ahead were chains like Panera, Subway, Taco Bell, Wendy's, even tiny Shake Shack. Packaged foods companies like Nestle and Mars are also claiming 'soon to be' status.

Trader Joe's seems to be on the back side of a fast rising curve.

Matthew Prescott, senior food policy director for the Humane Society of the United States, emailed me a few weeks ago with news that "The cage-free tipping point continues. Just in the last few days, here are some of the corporate cage-free announcements made:

  • Tim Hortons (Canada’s largest restaurant chain) announced it will transition to 100% cage-free eggs. The announcement comes via Tim Hortons’ parent company, Restaurant Brands International; it’s a global commitment that will apply to all the company’s U.S., Canadian, and Mexican locations by 2025.
  • Bob Evans announced plans to reach 100% cage-free egg supply chain.
  • Sonic Drive-In (which uses 155 million eggs annually for its 3,500 locations) committed to going exclusively cage-free.
  • Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. announced it will eliminate cages from their (substantial) egg supply chains.
  • PF Chang’s proclaimed that it too will go 100% cage-free.
  • White Castle pledged to switch to 100% cage-free eggs.
  • And Starwood Hotels announced it too will go 100% cage-free.

Just this week, Ahold, one the nation’s top grocery companies with chains like Giant and Stop & Shop, announced it will switch to 100% cage-free eggs by 2022. Then Bloomin' Brands, owners of Outback Steakhouse, Carrabba’s, Bonefish Grill and Fleming’s jumped on board followed by Krystal, the Atlanta-based fast food chain with more than 350 locations in the Southeast.

The longer list published by HSUS represents the majority of America's retail egg-users. According to the Society, these companies have committed to using only cage-free eggs. The year they say they will complete the transition is included.:
Currently: Noodles & Company
2016: Shake Shack
2016: Taco Bell
2017: Au Bon Pain
2017: Burger King
2020: Arby’s
2020: Caribou Coffee
2020: Einstein Brothers
2020: Panera Bread
2020: Starbucks
2020: Wendy’s
2022: Quiznos
2025: Bob Evans
2025: Dunkin’ Donuts
2025: Jack in the Box
2025: McDonald’s
2025: Qdoba
2025: Subway
2025: Taco John’s
2025: TGI Fridays
2025: White Castle
2025: Sonic Corp.
2026: Denny’s

In an interview with Nation's Restaurant News, Prescott said, “There was a time 10 to 15 years ago when I’d be calling up a burger chain and trying to get a conversation started about cage-free eggs. They thought I was trying to sell them eggs. Times have changed a lot.”

And the movement is being propelled by the younger set; the Millennials and their cohorts.  “The consumer has changed,” Prescott said. “Over the last 10 years, people have become more curious about their food. They want answers about animal cruelty. That has pushed chains in the right direction.”

The supply of cage free eggs was limited a few years ago, one of the two reasons most restaurant chains were promising to make the change a decade from now.  The second reason, I think, is top management at more than a few of those chains were hoping the whole thing would blow over in a year or two and no one would remember to hold them to such long-term promises.

It's getting easier to find a reliable source of supply.  The percentage of cage free eggs available on the market jumped more than 60% from 2014to 2015 according to numbers supplied by John Howeth, executive vice president of the American Egg Board.

In that same NRN article, Howeth suggested the law of unintended consequences would create some problems. In its work to force a more humane way to bring eggs to market, HSUS might have stubbed a big toe. added that the process requires new production that costs more money in addition to more training. Howeth said, in addition to the added expense of building news housing and retraining egg industry employees, "there’s also higher mortality in those environments.  Hens have pecking orders, and will periodically peck one another to death."

Of course, debeaking to prevent that pecking problem has already been condemned as a brutal practice by HSUS.

Bottom Line: The days of delivering eggs to market cheaply and efficiently will soon be over.  Look for an (un)healthy price hike for a dozen extra large at your neighborhood Piggly Wiggly. The HSUS has spoken.

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