A new national survey released in July by the ASPCA revealed that more than three in four Americans are concerned about farm animal welfare. Seeing the writing on the wall, food industry executives have responded by taking some steps to improve animal welfare in their supply chains. Nearly 100 of world's leading food brands - including McDonalds, Sodexo, Walmart, Jack in the Box and Yum Brands (which operates Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut) - have all announced that moving forward, they'll require their egg suppliers to stop using battery cages. And as of July of this year, all of the nation's top 25 grocery chains have announced that they'll go cage-free. These commitments have the potential to improve the lives of a significant portion of the 290 million egg laying hens in the US that are currently confined so tightly, they're unable to spread their wings or lay eggs in nests.
"Major food retailers like McDonald's and Wal-Mart know their customers care about animals" says Cody Carlson, staff attorney for Mercy for Animals. "With more and more people learning how factory farmed animals suffer in these restrictive cages, brand-conscious companies simply don't want to be associated with this kind of cruel and unethical activity."
However, even though cage-free eggs are often portrayed as coming from idyllic small family farms on rolling pastures, the reality is that at large non-organic chicken farms, where outdoor access isn't required, most chickens are kept in aviaries - multi-tiered barns where thousands or tens of thousands of birds roam around the building and hop from level to level.
Providing chickens with space to move freely may prevent some of the worst health conditions created by battery cages, but the aviaries still present their own issues. For example, a three year study by The Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply found that aviaries have almost twice the death rate as caged buildings, mostly due to increased aggression and cannibalism between birds. To address the issue, many aviary managers continue to rely on the factory farm industry practice of cutting the tip off of the chickens' beaks. "While it's been great to see increased engagement from the public around food, it's very important to clarify that cage-free does not mean high-welfare," says Emily Moose, Director of Outreach for A Greener World.
Voters, Legislators Want Humane Farm Animal Treatment
But private food companies aren't the only ones paying attention to consumers' demands for more humane food. Voters and state governments are also playing an important role in fight against inhumane treatment of farm animals. In 2008, California voters overwhelmingly approved a referendum banning extreme farm animal confinement in the state followed by the passage of bill AB 1437 in 2010, which requires that all eggs sold in California, regardless of origin, come from hens that are able to move freely. Both laws went into effect in 2015.
California was a trend starter. Ten years ago, only one state had a law on the books banning inhumane treatment of farm animals. As of this year, twenty six farm animal protection laws have been passed in 11 states, (see graphic below) and 10 states have recently banned extreme confinement. A law outlawing battery cages is currently moving through Rhode Island's legislature and in November, the voters of Massachusetts will have the opportunity to pass a ballot measure banning the production and sale of products from confined hens, pigs and calves in the state.
Big Ag Lobbyists Losing Animal Welfare Fights
While some agribusiness lobbyists, and the American Legislative Exchange Council, are fighting battles against these new animal welfare laws, others are trying to block future reforms. Using big campaign contributions, big meat producers and processors like Smithfield Foods and Koch Industries convinced some lawmakers in states with large numbers of factory farms like Iowa, Kansas and Missouri to introduce legislation intended to undermine popular animal welfare laws. These include "ag-gag" laws designed to suppress or intimidate whistle blowers from documenting conditions at factory farms, as well as "Right to Farm" laws which block any restrictions on livestock or ranching practices, including extreme confinement. "The good news is that these efforts have backfired spectacularly," says Carlson. "Of the 38 ag-gag bills introduced since 2011, all but five were defeated - and a federal court has already overturned one of those five as unconstitutional. Meanwhile, widespread media coverage of ag-gag laws has only drawn more attention to the problems of factory farming and increased public support for animal welfare regulations. As a result, fewer and fewer ag-gag laws are being introduced every year. Like the saying goes, sunlight is the best disinfectant."
Consumers: Look for Third-Party Verification
So how can consumers concerned about the welfare of farm animals play their part in the support of humane production practices? "The easiest and most effective thing anyone can do to stop animal cruelty is to stop paying for it," said Carlson. "Every time you sit down to eat, consider choosing from the variety of healthy, sustainable and delicious plant-based options out there." In addition, consumers should look for third party verified animal products, like the one provided through Animal Welfare Approved.
"As consumers, we often assume the best of food labels," says Moose. "But unfortunately experience has shown us that without third-party verification, most claims are just the same products in different packages...[these types of verifications] give farmers a way to transparently communicate their high-welfare, environmentally sustainable production practices, while giving consumers a way to purchase with confidence."