Roughly 5 million egg-laying hens in Utah soon will be unfettered — free to stretch their wings, scratch or perch — under a new law that requires large commercial farms to become cage-free by 2025.
Passed by the Legislature, signed by Gov. Spencer Cox and cheered by animal welfare organizations, the law makes Utah one of nine states to ban or restrict cages at production facilities with more than 3,000 hens.
Utah joins California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island and Washington in this movement.
Farms with fewer than 3,000 birds are not subject to the restriction.
In addition to cage-free conditions, passage of SB147 also requires farms to provide minimal “enrichments” such as areas to perch, scratch, dust-bathe and lay eggs in a nesting area.
“This allows them to fulfill vital natural behaviors that they can’t do in a cage,” said Josh Balk, vice president of the Humane Society of the United States’ farm-animal protection campaign.
With the Utah law, the cage-free movement has “hit a tipping point,” he said. “Our country has made a decision that cages are no longer appropriate in egg production.”
Who pushed for the cage-free law?
Animal welfare advocates were not the ones — at least outwardly — pushing for the bill. Instead, Utah’s large egg producers asked for the law, saying they preferred a cage-free mandate through legislation rather than face a looming ballot initiative by an animal welfare group.
World Animal Protection was ready to file a measure for the November 2022 ballot that would have required Utah’s large egg producers to transition to cage-free production by June 2023. The quick turnaround would have been nearly impossible for large operators to undertake.
“It can take producers several years and an enormous amount of money to change to cage-free,” said Cliff Lillywhite, co-owner of North Salt Lake-based Oakdell Egg Farms, one of four commercial operations that will have to convert to cage-free production.
The 115-year-old egg company’s Cache County facility in Lewiston, near the Idaho border, is already a cage-free operation.
A fifth large egg producer, Delta Egg Farm, already is a cage-free operation. Owned by Cal-Maine, it is the largest producer of fresh shell eggs in the United States.
Lillywhite said the conversion to a cage-free will cost each producer $40 to $45 per bird. With roughly 5 million egg-laying hens, the industry will spend between $200 million and $250 million to make the change.
The farmers will have to borrow money to do it. “With the longer timeline,” he said, “the banks will be more willing to consider us for loans.”
Balk, with the Humane Society of the U.S., helped negotiate a compromise with the opposing sides. If Utah egg producers pushed for the cage-free law for 2025, World Animal Protection would not pursue the ballot measure.
The compromise proves that legislators — both Republican and Democrat — as well as animal protection organizations and the industry “can find common ground,” Balk said. “What a motley crew to come together and accomplish something really special.”
Utah egg producers agreed to the compromise for other reasons, too. Ballot initiatives in other states have been costly and dominated with negative publicity.
“They make us look like we are bad producers,” Lillywhite said during a recent legislative committee hearing. “They hire people to take videos that don’t represent who we are.”
Egg market is calling for cage-free hens
Despite its support among opposing groups, SB147 went through several revisions before passage. Many lawmakers also were hesitant to pass the bill, fearing it would set a precedent for cattle and other agricultural industries. Most said they would prefer to let the free market dictate industry changes rather than impose more government regulation.
“We are having this debate because one group of extremists has a large pot of money and is holding this industry hostage,” Rep. Casey Snider, R-Paradise, said during a committee debate. “It’s frustrating that this how we do ag policy in this state — with a gun to our head.”
But the U.S. egg market is already moving in the cage-free direction, said Dave Davis, president of the Utah Retail Merchants Association.
More consumers have been demanding cage-free eggs, and national grocery stores and restaurant chains — from Kroger and Target to McDonald’s and Starbucks — have said they would stop selling eggs from caged hens by 2025.
Egg producers can “have confidence going forward,” Davis said, that if they make the capital investment, “a good chunk of the market” will buy their product.
About 15 years ago, when the Humane Society first started its campaign to end confinement, about 3% of the U.S. egg industry was cage-free. Today, that section of the market totals 30%.
While cage-free hens have more freedom than confined birds, they still never go outside and roam the farm, like chickens from a century ago. They are kept inside a barn with artificial light and fresh air pumped in, according to the Humane Society website.
The industry requires 144 square inches of space in a barn for every cage-free hen, compared with 67 square inches for a caged hen.
Data also shows that consumers are willing to pay higher prices for the socially conscious products. Under Utah’s cage-free law, consumers can expect to spend an additional 24 cents per dozen or about $6 more a year on eggs. The average consumer eats about 300 eggs annually.
That has Jeremy Rigtrup of Elberta-based Rigtrup Farm feeling more confident about the future of his family’s 94-year-old egg farm.
“It’s a workable compromise,” he said. “This ensures that our thriving industry remains safe for many years to come.”