Because eggs are the cheapest form of protein and have few substitutes, keeping the cost low and satisfying the agenda of animal rights activists is difficult, said Jayson Lusk, Oklahoma State University agricultural economics professor, in a recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece. The article stems from a Massachusetts ballot initiative that would require all eggs sold in the state to be from cage-free hens.
Lusk referenced California’s Proposition 2, which also prohibited the use of battery cages for egg-laying hens. The legislation caused a dramatic increase in the cost of eggs, Lusk wrote:
“Comparing the prices of eggs sold in California before and after the law with the prices of eggs sold in other states reveals that the legislation increased egg prices for Californians by at least 22%—or about 75 cents for a dozen. A related analysis using Agriculture Department wholesale price data indicates the California law increased prices between 33% and 70%. Poor Americans, who spend a larger share of their incomes on food, are disproportionately affected.”
Although consumers support the humane treatment of animals, Lusk cites statistics that state most are unwilling to pay a higher cost for it.
“Most consumers want farm animals to be treated well. But judging by shopping habits, they’re only willing to pay so much for hens’ amenities. The market share for affordable, cage-produced eggs (about 90%) dominates the more expensive, cage-free eggs (less than 10%). That is probably because the price premium for a dozen cage-free eggs is about 60%. A number of restaurants and retailers, including Wal-Mart, have recently pledged to go cage-free in 10 years. These firms will need to innovate if they intend to improve hen welfare and keep costs down.”
Across the country, animal rights groups are pushing for legislation they believe benefits animals. As Lusk explained, cage-free eggs may not be more humane:
“Further, it’s not even clear that cage-free methods, typically called barn or aviary systems, are better for the animal in all respects. They do provide hens more space. The barns allow the birds to exhibit natural behaviors like scratching and dust bathing, and they provide nesting areas for laying eggs. But, in addition to being more expensive, they are far from the paradise many people envision.
“The barns are often chaotic, dusty and smelly. A comparative study by the Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply showed that cage-free systems lead to higher rates of cannibalism and aggression, more bone damage and higher death rates. Yes, “pecking order” is a real thing. The cage-free systems also tend to have substantially worse air quality and more particulate-matter emissions than cage systems.”
The point? Agriculture must be regulated by the market, not by senseless legislation. But if legislation does regulate agriculture, it must be based on scientifically-proven humane practices, not on emotion.
Read the full article in the Wall Street Journal.