Versova via AP
This 2017 photo shows cage-free chickens on a Versova farm in Iowa. The nation's egg producers are in the midst of a multi-billion-dollar shift to cage-free eggs that is dramatically changing the lives of millions of hens in response to new laws and demands from restaurant chains.
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Without much fuss and even less public attention, the nation’s egg producers are in the midst of a multibillion-dollar shift to cage-free eggs that is dramatically changing the lives of millions of hens in response to new laws and demands from restaurant chains.
In a decade, the percentage of hens in cage-free housing has soared from 4% in 2010 to 28% in 2020, and that figure is expected to more than double to about 70% in the next four years.
The change marks one of the animal welfare movement’s biggest successes after years of battles with the food industry. The transition has cost billions of dollars for producers who initially resisted calls for more humane treatment of chickens but have since fully embraced the new reality. Pushed by voter initiatives in California and other states as well as pressure from fast food restaurant chains and major grocers, egg producers are freeing chickens from cages and letting them move throughout hen houses.
“What we producers failed to realize early on was that the people funding all the animal rights activist groups, they were our customers. And at the end of the day, we have to listen to our customers,” said Marcus Rust, the CEO of Indiana-based Rose Acre Farms, the nation’s second-largest egg producer.
Josh Balk, vice president for farm animal protection at the Humane Society of the United States, noted the abruptness of the about face. This is “an entire industry that at one point fought tooth and nail not to make any changes,” he said.
To a great extent, the industry concluded it didn’t have another choice.
Beginning in about 2015, McDonald’s, Burger King and other national restaurant chains as well as dozens of grocers and food manufacturers responded to pressure from animal welfare groups by announcing their commitment to cage-free eggs. That was followed by laws requiring cage-free housing in California and similar rules in at least seven other states — Colorado, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Washington.
McDonald’s, which buys about 2 billion eggs annually, said it gradually shifted to cage-free after concluding it was desired by customers. Many companies widely promoted their move to cage-free as good for their brand’s image.
Earlier, animal welfare groups, especially the Humane Society, had organized shareholder campaigns, conducted undercover investigations of chicken farms and filed federal complaints. A Gallup poll from 2015 found that nearly two-thirds of Americans thought animals deserved protection from harm and exploitation.
AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
Eggs are displayed in a grocery store cooler on Feb. 8, 2022, in Des Moines, Iowa. Without much fuss and even less public attention, the nation's egg producers are in the midst of a multi-billion-dollar shift to cage-free eggs.
Animal rights groups have made allowing animals room to move a priority in their campaigns, but the results have been mixed. The pork industry is fighting to block the California initiative that required more space for breeding pigs and veal calves, and a state judge recently delayed implementation of new rules.
The egg industry also initially sought national standards that would allow larger cages but ultimately relented, said J. T. Dean, president of Iowa-based Versova, a leading egg producer. Egg companies house about 325 million laying hens, so shifting many out of cages where they couldn’t move and into spaces where they could walk and roost was an expensive proposition, Dean said.
Besides building structures with more space, companies had to figure out how to feed birds that could move about and how to collect their eggs. More workers and more feed were also needed because hens moving around would work up more of an appetite.
The key, said Dean, was getting long-term commitments for guaranteed buyers of eggs at a higher price and then finding financing that would work for his company.
“When you start talking about needing billions of dollars, you have to try every avenue you can,” Dean said.
The exact cost of the switch on egg producers is hard to estimate, in part because some updating of buildings and equipment is done periodically anyway. The cost to people at grocery stores is clearer.
Jayson Lusk, who heads the Agricultural Economics Department at Purdue University, found that after a mandatory shift on Jan. 1 to cage-free in California, the price of a dozen eggs in the state jumped by 72 cents — or 103% — over the average U.S. price, although the gap could shrink as the market adapts.
At Des Moines’ Gateway Market, which specializes in organic and specialty food, shoppers said they think it’s worth paying more for eggs if it improves lives for hens.
“I feel as though I want the chicken to be happy,” said Mary Skinner of Des Moines. “How would we feel if we were stuck in a cage?”
Gregg Fath, a Des Moines resident who enjoys eating three eggs for breakfast, said he thinks “people are learning to be more aware.”
AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
Gregg Fath of Des Moines, Iowa, looks at eggs in a grocery store cooler on Feb. 4, 2022, in Des Moines.
Looking years into the future, egg company leaders said they think the demand for cheaper eggs from caged hens will remain roughly 25% or more of the market, but Balk at the Humane Society said he expects it to become a tiny percentage of overall sales.
Balk notes that hundreds of national retailers, restaurants, grocers and food manufacturers either have implemented cage-free requirements or plan to do so within a few years.
“This is the future of every state in America,” he said.
There are roughly 9.7 million vegans in the United States today, up a staggering 3,000% from 2004, according to a 2020 study from Ipsos Retail Performance. These dietary changes have caught the attention of businesses and created a booming vegan market where even traditional meat industry giants have gotten into the faux meat game.
Sales of plant-based food in 2020 grew by 27%—twice as fast as food sales in general, according to data from SPINS for The Good Food Institute and Plant Based Foods Association. A full 57% of Americans say they buy plant-based alternatives to animal products.
People’s reasons for adopting a plant-based diet range from personal health to animal rights to environmental concerns related to factory farming. Thistle analyzed numerous academic studies published in peer-reviewed journals such as Frontiers in Nutrition and Nutrients to curate a list of 10 benefits of a plant-based diet.
Plant-based diets inherently focus on whole grains, beans, fresh produce, seeds, and nuts, but not everyone who eats plant-based diets eschews animal products entirely. As with all diets, it’s important to consider a person’s genetics, activity level, preexisting medical conditions, and any nutritional deficiencies or food allergies. In particular, those adopting plant-based diets are wise to make sure they’re getting sufficient levels of vitamins and minerals, from B12 to omega-3 fatty acids.
Keep reading to discover 10 benefits of plant-based diets.
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Inflammation is caused by white blood cells fighting off invaders—whether foreign objects, such as a splinter; irritations, such as allergies; or pathogens, such as bacterial or viral infections. In the case of autoimmune diseases, the immune system attacks healthy, normal tissue in the body. Overactive inflammatory response is widely considered by experts to contribute to chronic disorders including Type 2 diabetes or heart problems.
Acute, or short-term inflammation, comes on as localized pain, redness, loss of mobility, or swelling. The area may be hot to the touch, as in the case of a bee sting, and can last from a few hours to several days. Chronic inflammation can last months or years, and can come on as a hyper reaction to an external trigger, such as is the case with allergies; a mistaken reaction in which the immune system attacks healthy tissue, as with cancer or eczema; or long-term exposure to an irritant.
Diet and exercise have major effects on inflammation: Whereas obesity, smoking, lack of consistent sleep, and a diet heavy in added sugars and unhealthy fats can all increase inflammation in the body, nutrients found in fruits and vegetables have been shown to reduce inflammation.
A popularly cited 2018 analysis of the international food industry suggests that switching to a plant-based diet represents the largest single action a person can take to reduce their environmental impact. While those stats—such as the fact that the ecological footprint of livestock represents 18% of calories and 83% of farmland—are striking, they don’t take into consideration all the complexities of sustainable eating habits.
It is true that pound for pound, animal protein requires 100 times as much water as grain protein—and that the production of oat milk emits 80% fewer greenhouse gases and requires 60% less energy than cow’s milk. Still, switching to a plant-based diet doesn’t guarantee more eco-friendly food choices: Growing practices, treatment of workers, the distance food travels, packaging, and ingredient sourcing all contribute to how sustainable the food on your plate is—or isn’t.
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Consumption of red meat and poultry has been linked to an increased risk of diabetes, in part because of the high volume of heme iron in those meats, according to findings in the Singapore Chinese Health Study published in 2017.
That research involved recruiting more than 63,000 adults between 45 and 74 from 1993 to 1998, and following their health progress for 11 years, in addition to studying the correlation between various kinds of meats and the volume of heme iron in each. Participants who consumed the highest levels of red meat and poultry showed a 23% and 15% increase in diabetes risk, respectively. Consuming fish and shellfish showed no perceptible association with diabetes risk.
Meanwhile, plant-based diets have been shown to not only protect Type 2 diabetics from developing kidney disease, but to help reverse Type 2 diabetes itself. Plant-based diets may also reduce mortality rates in individuals with chronic kidney disease.
Whole plant-based foods contain plenty of fiber, zero dietary cholesterol, and low amounts of saturated fats—a winning combination for heart health. Meanwhile, meat, cheese, and eggs come with cholesterol and saturated fats that, in excess, may create plaque buildup in a person’s arteries.
But it’s not enough to just avoid meat: For heart health on a plant-based diet, it’s important to steer away from processed foods, including white rice and white bread, which lack nutritional value and contain a high glycemic index. This increases your odds for spiking blood-sugar levels and increased appetite. Similarly, whole fruits are healthier than fruit juice, even 100% juice, which often loses nutrients and vitamins while being processed and contains high levels of sugar.
Numerous studies have shown the positive effects of plant-based diets—particularly a vegetarian or vegan diet combined with nuts, soy, and fiber—on cholesterol levels. Five observational studies, cited in a study published in 2009 in the American Journal of Cardiology, found lower blood concentrations of TC and LDL cholesterol in populations consuming plant-based diets.
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A direct correlation was found between high intakes of fruit and vegetables and a significantly reduced risk of cognitive impairment and dementia, according to a report published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience in 2017. The key is likely in nutrients abundant in plant-based diets, including antioxidants, vitamins, and folate, that have been shown to have significant cognitive benefits.
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Vegetarian and vegan diets have been shown to promote a healthy mix of beneficial bacteria promoting gut and overall health. A healthy gut biome promotes a high-functioning metabolism, strong immune system, healthy bowel movements, and appropriate levels of hormones that contribute to adequate appetite regulation.
Just 16 weeks of a healthy vegan diet focused on whole fruits and vegetables has been shown to cause a documented improvement in gut health, according to research led by Hana Kahleova, M.D., Ph.D., of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and presented in 2019 at the European Association for the Study of Diabetes in Barcelona.
Plants create an abundance of phytochemicals that help to protect cellular damage as well as being anti-inflammatory. A variety of long-term studies suggest that benefits like these from eating whole plant foods, as opposed to processed foods, may actually be able to prevent up to a third of all cancer cases. Most-studied have been plant-based diets’ capacity to help protect against breast, colorectal, gastrointestinal, and prostate cancers.
A growing number of professional athletes have turned to a whole-foods, plant-based diet to reach optimal performance. Colin Kaepernick, Venus Williams, United States soccer star Alex Morgan, professional surfer Tia Blanco, WNBA player and four-time Olympic gold medalist Diana Taurasi, and dozens more pros are all vegan.
Like the rest of us, dietary choices of athletes come with, at times, complex reasoning behind them. But there’s a lot of science backing up whole plants as a great choice for athleticism: Heart-healthy foods, such as whole fruits, vegetables, legumes, and nuts, are also largely plant-based. The anti-inflammatory principles and immune support of plants also benefit athletes in major ways. Tennis pro Venus Williams transitioned to a plant-based diet after being diagnosed with an autoimmune disease called Sjögren’s syndrome and said a vegan diet allowed her to manage the disease without prescription medications.
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Low-fat, high-fiber diets are proven to reduce inflammation, which is great news for those following a whole-foods, plant-based diet. Because of how effective plants are at reducing inflammation, plant-based diets have been shown to work wonders for those living with inflammatory types of arthritis.
In a 2015 study, published in Arthritis, researchers investigated the effect of a plant-based diet on osteoarthritis. Those adhering to a whole-foods, plant-based diet experienced significant drops in pain levels and jumps in motor function in just two weeks.
This story was produced and distributed in partnership with Stacker Studio.