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Why will it take 10 years for Target, General Mills to go cage-free?

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This week, Target pledged to sell only "cage-free" eggs in the future, joining major food companies including Minnesota-based General Mills, McDonald's, Dunkin' Brand and ConAgra.

Another commonality with the companies listed above – they all set a target date of 2025 for that to happen.

So why is it taking a decade to make the change? The main reason concerns supply and infrastructure.

NPR wrote last year that more than 90 percent of America's egg supply comes from hens kept in battery cages.

McDonald's, for example, says it uses 2 billion eggs every year to satisfy demand for its U.S. restaurants – so the company is telling its suppliers all those eggs will have to be cage-free in the future.

That means a significant transformation in how farms house the hens.

Target said this is the main reason it can't commit to having 100 percent cage-free eggs on its shelves until 2025, telling BringMeTheNews: "This is a significant change for egg producers, so they have to redesign their egg production facilities to make this change."

The company said there have to be enough cage-free egg producers to meet the demand of how many Target needs – a shift that "takes time."

"It's supply and demand: Right now cage-free supply isn’t high enough to meet in-store demand," Target continued.

MN egg producer weighs in

Although his company differs from the majority of egg producers, in that it takes its eggs from pasture-raised hens, Jason Amundsen of Wrenshall-based Locally Laid says the change will be a big undertaking for caged hen farmers.

"What you have to appreciate from large industry players' perspective is you are looking at enormous capital costs, as you are rendering the existing cage structures obsolete," he told BringMeTheNews.

Amundsen says that while they are juggling the logistics of changing their equipment, buildings and products, farmers also have to contend with trying to strike the balance of supply and demand as they transition from caged to cage-free eggs.

"If you don't produce enough eggs you're in trouble, and if you produce too many you're really wrong as these are perishable products," he said.

That said, some other companies – such as Wendy's, Starbucks, Nestle and Panera – have announced more aggressive deadlines to go cage-free: 2020.

The Huffington Post notes not all of these firms have revealed how many eggs they use and who their current suppliers are, which could affect the time it takes to implement the changes.

Is the bird flu playing a role?

General Mills responded to BringMeTheNews by suggesting last year's outbreak of avian influenza has played a role in its 10-year timeline.

The company said it's working closely with egg suppliers "to determine a path forward" regarding the cage-free egg commitment, as the industry looks to rebuild and bounce back from the devastating virus.

"It's important to communicate long-term goals," a spokesperson said. "The industry needs direction to plan, and we can help shape that future planning by sharing where we intend to go."

This New York Times article from September explained the link between bird flu and the cage-free movement, noting farmers that had to euthanize thousands of barns last year suddenly have buildings with empty battery cages.

Some of them, the newspaper notes, are using this as an opportunity to convert their barns with a caged system into a cage-free one.

The cage-free movement

The decisions by some of the country's biggest food retailers, restaurants and producers to go cage-free has come amid a wider movement from animal rights groups calling for more humane treatment of livestock.

This, in turn, is having an impact on consumer demand – with Politico noting people are now taking more interest in what they're eating, with cage-free becoming "the new normal" despite the opposition from many in the egg industry.

Cage-free hens are kept together in a barn where they're able to move, spread their wings and lay eggs in nests, rather than being confined six to a cage, their eggs rolling into collection trays.

Despite this, the conditions they are kept in are not cruelty-free, The Humane Society says, noting it shares some similarities with how caged hens are kept.

One of those opposing the cage-free trend is The National Association of Egg Farmers, which contends the idea cage-free eggs come from better conditions is a "fraud."

"More chickens together, such as in a cage-free system, means more pecking, and those chickens lower on the pecking order are being pecked the most," spokesman Ken Klippen told BringMeTheNews. "That explains why cage-free systems oftentimes have three times more chicken deaths than the modern conventional cages. An increase in deaths is hardly better welfare."

But others view the move to cage-free as better than nothing, with Locally Laid's Amundsen saying organizations like NAEF are reacting this way because it is an attack on the status quo.

"They grab onto anything that threatens their existing market share, it's a threat to the status quo and if anything changes they will grasp at anything to stop from having to change," he said. "When you weigh up the proportionally smaller damage associated with cage-free hen farming up against the enormous barbarity of battery cages, you would go cage-free every time."

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