Those already expensive eggs at your local grocer are about to get a tiny bit costlier – and potentially less available.
And it’s all in the name of humane treatment of the hens
New regulations that took effect at the beginning of the month require that laying hens that are kept in cages have at least one square foot – 144 inches – of usable floor space. That compares to cages that until now could be less than half that size.
And beginning in 2025, all major producers have to go to cage-free.
The state Department of Agriculture puts average annual per capita consumption at slightly more than 270 eggs a year. Figuring the new rules would add somewhere between a penny and 3.25 cents per egg, that comes out to somewhere between $2.71 and $8.79 a year.
But Chelsea McGuire, lobbyist for the Arizona Farm Bureau which opposed the rule, thinks those numbers are soft.
At best, she said, it’s speculative as the full rules for cage-free housing are not in place. And McGuire argued that the estimates the state was using didn’t really take into account all the costs.
And that, McGuire said, is only part of the problem that consumers will face, what with shoppers sometimes finding there are no eggs available at any price.
Much of that is due to an outbreak of avian flu that requires farmers to destroy whole flocks even if just one hen tests positive. A ban on selling eggs from traditionally caged hens, McGuire said, only exacerbates the problem.
“We’re restricting the supply from which we can choose the eggs that we can bring into the state,’’ she said, noting the rule affects not just Arizona-based egg producers but any firm that wants to sell eggs to Arizona consumers.
“We’re locking producers into this premium product and doing so unnecessarily,’’ McGuire said. And she said it’s all being done “without a public health or safety justification or a scientific justification.’’
Some animal rights groups argued that it’s cruel to keep the laying hens in tiny pens.
McGuire sniffed at that contention. “Stress indicators on hens, things like that, are really no different between conventional confinement cages and cage-free production systems,’’ she said.
That wasn’t the assessment of then-Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, when he crafted legislation in 2021 to require cage-free housing by anyone producing more than 3,000 eggs a year.
“Confining chickens to less than one square foot, I think, is really cruel,’’ he told colleagues.
“Granted, they don’t have very high levels of sentient awareness,’’ Kavanagh continued. “But they feel pain and they’re prevented from engaging in natural and instinctive behavior, even to the point of spreading their wings or being able to sit down when they lay their eggs.’’
The Farm Bureau managed to kill that measure.
That didn’t end the fight, with the state Department of Agriculture concluding it already had the authority to approve its own rules. And that’s precisely what it did.
It turns out the agency had an important ally on its side: Hickman’s Egg Ranch, located west of Phoenix, which is the state’s largest egg producer. And what it came down to is the fear that the failure to take some voluntary measure would result in something more onerous.
As far back as 2021, when lawmakers were considering the Kavanagh measure, company President Glenn Hickman told lawmakers he worried that voters would adopt an initiative being pushed by World Animal Protection.
It would not only have required cage-free systems by May of this year but would have made violations a crime. By contrast, the legislation -- and the rule that eventually followed after the bill failed -- gives him until 2025 to come into full compliance, with no criminal penalties.
The company already has been moving into the cage-free market. Hickman told lawmakers in 2021 that some clients, including McDonald’s and Costco, already were demanding cage-free eggs.
But the initiative caused some heartburn as company representatives told the Department of Agriculture.
“Hickman’s Egg Ranch informs the department that it cannot convert the remainder of its production facilities to cage-free housing by May 31, 2023, as required by the initiative, and may have to euthanize a portion of its flock to avoid criminal penalties if the initiative passes,’’ the agency reported.
And then there was the fact that other states already had enacted similar rules, meaning Arizona producers who want to sell their eggs elsewhere effectively would have to go along eventually.
The final rule also is more liberal than what lawmakers had rejected. It exempts any producer which has fewer than 20,000 egg-producing hens.
It also does not require that all eggs come from free-range hens which would have required that they have access to the outdoors at least part of the day. Instead they could be kept in large barns – up to 300,000 square feet where hens could wander about.
McGuire, however, said she remains convinced that none of this was necessary. She argued that Arizonans would have rejected the initiative for cage-free eggs.
The record, however, suggests otherwise. Voters in 2006 approved a ban on “gestation crates’’ for pig and cattle ranchers.
And the Department of Agriculture reached the same conclusion, citing “the success of recent animal welfare ballot initiatives in Arizona and elsewhere’’ to justify the rule.
In debating the 2021 legislation, lawmakers asked Hickman if eggs from cage-free chickens are of higher quality than their more-confined cousins. He said there’s no simple answer.
“You feed the chickens the same,’’ Hickman said. He said it’s like brown versus white eggs, with no real difference.
“But there are some studies that suggest that chickens who have less stress tend to have more natural defenses, immunities, if you will, and are therefore healthier,’’ he continued. “And that would translate potentially into maybe a different composition of egg.’’
“You’re making some scientific leaps,’’ Hickman concluded.