The Cage Age in American Agriculture Must Face Its Sunset
McDonald’s announcement of its transition to cage-free eggs is a marker that animal agriculture must heed the wishes of its customers and do better on animal welfare.
Oftentimes, I tell you about the failings of government in implementing animal-welfare laws or corporations delivering on their pledges. Well, here’s good news: a corporation kept its word.
Last week, McDonald’s announced that it had completed its transition away from cage-confinement of hens two years ahead of schedule. The company now only sells cage-free eggs. Two billion of them a year, out of a total of 91 billion eggs sold in the U.S.
This cage-free pledge was a deal I helped negotiate with the fast-food giant in 2015 when I was CEO of The Humane Society of the United States. I did that work with two former colleagues, Josh Balk (CEO of The Accountability Board) and Paul Shapiro (CEO of the Better Meat Co.).
Now, as leader of the Center for a Humane Economy — and author of The Humane Economy, where I wrote about the McDonald’s campaign — I am committed to a cage-free future for all animals in agriculture. I celebrate the move by McDonald’s to do better on its procurement practices. All animals deserve humane treatment, including those raised for food. Animals built to move should be allowed to move, and unyielding confinement is the antithesis of proper care.
The egg industry resisted those arguments for a decade. Our clash culminated when we prevailed in a head-to-head fight on California’s Prop 2 in 2008. From that point forward, my colleagues and I engaged in discussions with egg industry leaders who heard the electoral message from their customers. They allowed me to visit their farms and to gain more insight into their challenges with the expensive and difficult task of rehauling their operations.
Major producers, such as Rose Acre Farms in Indiana, Herbruck’s Poultry Ranch in Michigan, Hickman’s Family Farms in Arizona, Forsman Farms in Minnesota, and Cal-Maine Foods in Mississippi, started a building boom centered around cage-free housing. These companies collectively invested billions and they have been earnestly transitioning to a cage-free future.
When we started the campaign to get hens out of extreme confinement two decades ago, just one percent of eggs came from cage-free-housed hens. It’s still a work in progress, but today, nearly half of the industry is cage-free.
The trade association for the egg industry, the United Egg Producers, led for the last 15 years by the very capable Chad Gregory, has been protective of his industry and understanding that change must happen for its own good and for the good of the hens. He insisted that shelf space would have to be there for his farmers and recognized that it would be an immense challenge but an achievable one. Without the changes farmers have subsequently made in hen housing, McDonald’s would never have been able to go cage-free within eight years.
Two Sectors of American Agriculture Diverge
We also beat the pork industry at the ballot box. In fact, the first-ever winning ballot measures focused on the inhumane confinement of pigs in gestation crates — the two-foot by seven-foot cages that immobilize 400-pound sows. I ran winning ballot measures in 2002 in Florida and 2006 in Arizona. Prop 2 had a gestation-crate ban as one of its core provisions, along with the first-ever provision in a ballot measure to ban cage confinement of hens.
As election cycles wore on, the electoral losses kept piling up for the pork producers. In 2016, Massachusetts voters approved Question 3 by a stunning 56 percent — 78 percent to 22 percent. That measure was the first to stipulate that the state would, in the years ahead, only sell pork and eggs from producers who gave the animals enough space to stand up, lie down, turn around, and freely extend their limbs. California’s Prop 12 was similar in construction to Question 3, and as with Prop 2, it was an electoral rout.
You would have thought the industry would be humbled, recognizing that its confinement systems were out of alignment with American values. But after losing at the ballot box, the pig industry pivoted to the courts to try to overturn Prop 12, seeking to nullify the sales restrictions on pork from caged, immobilized animals. The egg industry, with its provisions also having been on the ballot, never joined the litigation binge.
That hasn’t worked out well for the pig industry. NPPC and its surrogates lost 11 straight cases in the federal courts before they got their chance to plead their case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In NPPC v. Ross, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected their claims, too. In the Court’s May 2023 ruling, the justices determined that Prop 12 and other similar laws were a proper exercise of state authority. The pork producers “invite us to fashion two new and more aggressive constitutional restrictions on the ability of States to regulate goods sold within their borders,” wrote Justice Neil Gorsuch. “We decline that invitation. While the Constitution addresses many weighty issues, the type of pork chops California merchants may sell is not on that list.”
You would think that would have been the end of it. But true to form, the NPPC didn’t waste a minute in switching venues. It demanded redress from Congress to overturn American elections that deliver better living conditions to animals. Their legislation, dubbed the EATS Act, would “nullify any state or local law that places any kind of standard, regardless of its impact, on agricultural exchange, whether grounded on concerns about animal welfare, food safety, chemicals, agricultural pests, or worker safety,” concluded Scott Edwards, general counsel for the Center for a Humane Economy and Animal Wellness Action.
Big Pork Seems to Favor China’s Values on Animal Welfare
It’s worth noting that the domestic pig industry has increasingly seen its herds and pig houses taken over by other nations, including foreign governments. That stands in contrast to the American-owned sectors of eggs, broiler birds, and cattle. Just two companies — Chinese-owned Smithfield Foods (26 percent) and Brazil-owned JBS (14 percent) — control 40 percent of domestic pig production.
And just as importantly, the pig industry exports a third of all U.S.-produced pork, selling pork to Mexico, China, and Japan, and more than 136 other counties where there are no mandated animal welfare standards.
One cannot understand the EATS Act without recognizing this foreign footprint in the domestic pig industry. The NPPC is openly taking a position at odds with tens of thousands of its U.S.-based members. Indeed, more than 40 percent of U.S. breeding sows are already in group housing systems, rather than gestation crates; those farmers are perfectly positioned to take advantage of the new markets in California and Massachusetts, along with fulfilling the corporate pledges of McDonald’s, Costco, and 60 other companies that have publicly pledged over time to source only gestation-crate-free pork.
A market analysis report from the Center for a Humane Economy revealed that the industry has been in transition for more than two decades since Florida banned the use of gestation crates in 2002. Some of the U.S.’s biggest pork producers, such as Pennsylvania-based Clemens Food Group, along with farmer cooperatives and companies such as Niman Ranch, strongly oppose the EATS Act. These producers have collectively invested billions in housing systems that give the animals some room to maneuver. Indeed, farmers want Prop 12 as a matter of their own corporate survival. They don’t want to be undercut in the marketplace by producers who are operating with archaic and inhumane housing systems and taking moral shortcuts.
Many politicians are listening to the farmers and not to their industry trade associations, whose biggest members are foreign-owned corporations. In a remarkable showing of opposition to the EATS Act, 171 House members, including 5 Republicans, sent a letter to Agriculture Committee leaders last summer opposing this sweeping attempt to nullify state agriculture laws. Thirty Senators followed suit. Then, three months later, 16 Republicans wrote to House Agriculture Committee leaders and said they also oppose EATS. Other lawmakers are planning to weigh in, saying they cannot support a Farm bill with the EATS Act or any similar language.
A Pig Industry That Values Foreign Actors More Than American Customers
In 2013, the Bank of China provided a $5 billion loan to The Shuanghui Group, better known as the WH Group, to buy the U.S.-based Smithfield Foods. The effort by America’s biggest global rival to acquire one of our biggest protein producers was met with some grumbles and discomfort in political and economic circles at home, but no serious effort developed to derail the acquisition.
Now, a decade into the deal, the China-controlled Smithfield Foods controls 26 percent of U.S. pork production. It’s the most glaring example of foreign influence over U.S. agriculture.
We get a glimpse of China’s vision for pig farming by seeing the farms the country has built in its homeland. In Niexiang province, there are twenty-one 10-story and higher pig factory farms clustered together. It looks like a massive condominium complex in New York or Los Angeles that would house tens of thousands of families. Instead, there in China, pigs are jammed shoulder to shoulder on each floor, with every level of the factory farm its own farrow-to-finish operation. Not one of these pigs will ever see a ray of sunshine or enjoy a breeze buffeting their coarse coats or filling its nostrils.
More than any other human agricultural design, it reduces the animals to meat machines. It divorces them from nature and a decent living environment. It puts them up in the air but denies them even a glimpse of cloud or sky. It’s a dystopian vision so extreme that not even Orwell could fathom or, in a literary sense, construct it.
And if there is any doubt that the EATS Act is anti-family farmer, as well as extreme in its ruthless designs for animals, consider this: could a family farmer ever afford to build a 29-story high-rise factory farm costing $1 billion?
If there was ever a moment of clarity about the direction of American agriculture, this is it. Do we want the EATS Act and foreign control of U.S. agriculture, or do we want American farmers upholding some minimum standard of humane treatment of animals and assuring consumers that they are stewards of sentient animals at the center of the enterprise?
McDonald’s and other major American food retailers are telling pig and egg producers that they want a cage-free future. The egg industry got the message, but the trade group leading the pig industry is still resisting the inevitable transition toward a more humane future for agriculture.
If the NPPC gets its way on EATS, can there be any doubt that China, through its U.S.-based surrogates, would take advantage of a deregulated political environment and implement its worst designs? Beijing would seize this opportunity and export their factory farming skyscrapers to our homeland next.
There are so many reasons to oppose the EATS Act, but protecting American sovereignty and defending American elections should be at the very top of our list.
Take Action: Contact your federal lawmakers and urge them to oppose the EATS Act, S. 2019 and H.R. 4417.
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