The new year is expected to bring rising chicken egg prices across the U.S. as California starts requiring farmers to house hens in cages with enough space to move around and stretch their wings.
The new standard, backed by animal-rights advocates, has drawn ire nationwide because farmers in Iowa, Ohio and other states who sell eggs in California must abide by the same requirements.
To comply, farmers must put fewer hens in each cage or invest in revamped henhouses, passing the expense along to consumers shopping at grocery stores. California is the nation’s largest consumer of eggs and imports about one-third of its supply.
Jim Dean, president and CEO of Centrum Valley Farms in Iowa and Ohio, said one of his buildings holds 1.5 million hens but is now about half-full so it can meet California’s standards. Another building may have to be overhauled.
Farmers like him in cold climates will have to install heaters to replace warmth formerly generated by the chickens living close together. Dean said that’s something people in sunny California didn’t consider.
“You’re talking about millions upon millions of dollars,” he said. “It’s not anything that’s cheap or that can be modified easily, not in the Midwest.”
In 2008, California voters approved the law, backed by animal-rights advocates, to get egg-laying hens out of cramped cages and into larger enclosures by Jan. 1, 2015, that give them room to stretch, turn around and flap their wings.
State legislators followed with the companion piece in 2010 requiring the out-of-state compliance.
Egg prices have already risen, said Dave Heylen of the California Grocers Association, adding that the holiday season, cold weather nationwide, and increased exports to Mexico and Canada also contributed to a year-end price spike. He said he expects supplies to remain adequate to meet demand.
Daniel Sumner, an agricultural economist at the University of California, Davis, said prices could rise dramatically at first this year, but he expects them to settle anywhere from 10 to 40 percent higher in California and return to their normal price elsewhere in the country.
If farmers cut back on chickens so they can comply with California’s cage law, Sumner said, that could reduce the number of eggs available.
“When there’s that much uncertainty, I’m thinking there may be some disruption in the market,” he said.
Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, said the costs to consumers will be minimal and worth it for the welfare of chickens, which provide enough eggs for each person to consume on average 250 a year. For decades, he said, farmers have crammed six to eight chickens in small cages without room to move.
“This is the last bastion of cage confinement in industrial ag,” said Pacelle, whose organization led the reforms. In December, Starbucks said it will eliminate the sale of eggs from caged hens, he said, following the lead of Burger King and Whole Foods.
Low-income people who rely on eggs as an economical source of protein may be hurt the worst by California’s cage law, according to a report this week from the Egg Industry Center at Iowa State University. With a 15 percent increase, the cost of a dozen eggs could rise by 27 cents, and a family of four could pay $15.93 more a year, the report says.