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Poultry producers feeling pressure to go cage-free

By DOUG GRAVES
Ohio Correspondent

RAYMOND, Ohio — The American Humane Association announced last week that two-thirds of all cage-free eggs produced in the U.S. now come from farms and producers that have earned the American Humane Certified (AHC) label. But those figures, some say, are misleading.

“Only about five percent of all eggs are produced in cage-free environments,” said Gene Gregory, president of United Egg Producers. “By cage-free that includes organic and other non-cage systems. These animal activists would like you to believe that this trend is growing, that these restaurants and stores are leaning towards cage-free. The truth is the customers of these producers have been intimidated into making public statements saying they’re buying a lot of their eggs that are cage-free and then allowing the American Humane Association to use their name in the press, saying they’ve made the switch to cage-free.”

Still, AHC is going forward with its efforts. Last week, AHC audited and certified 10 cage-free egg producers, bringing the total number of cage-free egg farms in the program to more than 500. Among those certified cage-free were Nature Pure (Raymond, Ohio), Rose Acre Farms (Seymour, Ind.) and Iowa Cage Free Eggs (Iowa).

“American Humane Certified is a good group with established parameters that it holds its members to when it comes to production,” said Nature Pure Vice President Scott Culwell from his facility in Raymond, Ohio. “We were under no pressure to sport the AHC label. The pressure really came from the buyers because these buyers have been pressured by the American Humane Association on making sure the food supply is coming from a production facility that is treating the laying hens in accordance to guidelines that they are familiar and happy with.”

The eggs, from chickens raised in large, open barns instead of stacks of small wire cages, have become the latest addition to menus at universities, hotel chains and cafeterias. Even Burger King is getting in on the trend.

“We didn’t go out and volunteer to be American Humane Certified because it’s nothing more than additional accreditations and it involves a lot of monitoring and steps we didn’t have in place before,” Culwell said. “But the larger buyers of the world out there are saying unless you’re American Humane Certified they’re not going to buy your product. It wasn’t really a choice for us. If we didn’t go that direction we’d lose a lot of clients that we’re currently packing eggs for.”

The other seven recently certified cage-free egg producers include Oakdell Egg Farms (Utah), Burnbrae Farms (Canada), Cal-Maine Farms (North Carolina, Florida, Arkansas and Texas), Dixie Egg (Florida), Risser’s Poultry (Pennsylvania), Pecks Feeds (Wisconsin) and Valley Fresh Foods (California).

“American Humane Certified is the nation’s first science-based animal welfare program dedicated to the humane care and handling of farm animals,” said Tim Amlaw, director of American Humane Certified. “The increase in certified cage-free egg producers indicates a growing consumer demand for humane choices.”

But Gregory balks at such claims.

“The market place is not taking all that we’re producing,” Gregory said. “In fact, some producers have already reduced flock sizes in those houses because they can’t sell all their eggs as cage-free. The market place is not buying them.”

USDA statistics released last December indicate there are 282 million egg layers in the nation and 14 million (or 5 percent) are indicated as being cage-free.

2/10/2010