U switches to cage-free

University Dining Services began serving eggs from cage-free chickens in April.

Allison Wickler

Animal rights activists earned a victory at the University based on some recent measures taken by University Dining Services.

UDS began using cage-free eggs in all its residential dining facilities mid-April as one of more than 150 universities in the country to switch partially or entirely to cage-free eggs, according to the Humane Society of the United States.

Karen DeVet, UDS assistant director, said the organization made the switch to cage-free eggs based on input from its customers, namely students.

“The switch, on our part, was really to recognize students’ concerns to be more humane,” she said.

The 2,800 pounds of liquid eggs UDS purchases each week, which represents the majority of their egg purchases, are now from cage-free hens, DeVet said.

UDS originally had concerns related to higher egg cost and the availability of cage-free eggs from its suppliers, but the supplier made a cage-free option available last summer, DeVet said.

Though UDS won’t disclose its egg costs, as of April 20, the national average retail price for one dozen cage-production eggs was $1.04, while a dozen cage-free white eggs costs $2.20.

Brian Burke, food service manager at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said they used to pay $1.14 per pound for liquid eggs, but for cage-free liquid eggs they now pay $1.85 per pound. They used 66,500 pounds in the past year, he said.

DeVet said that meal plan prices will not increase as a result of the use of cage-free eggs, but that the University will absorb those costs.

During the 2005-2006 school year, UDS consulted several student advisory boards that didn’t support an increase in meal plan prices due to cage-free egg use, she said.

According to the group Compassionate Action for Animals, cage-free eggs are eggs that come from hens with two and a half to three times more living space than those housed in battery cages.

In a battery-cage setting, the group said, each bird has less than the area of a sheet of paper in which to live. In a cage-free setting, hens are allowed space to roam together and to spread their wings.

Compassionate Action for Animals Campaign Coordinator Gil Schwartz said using cage-free eggs is “a win-win situation for the hens and the students.”

Though cage-free eggs are more humane for chickens, he said cage-free conditions are not cruelty-free.

The group’s ultimate goal would be for people to eat vegan and not use eggs, Schwartz said, but they realize that’s not feasible.

Dr. Jacquie Jacob, a professor of animal science at the University, said chickens are actually bred to live in the battery-cage facilities.

She said if managed properly, both battery-cage and cage-free egg production facilities are adequate

But cage-free facilities, if managed poorly, can cause the chickens serious health problems if the chickens come in contact with fecal matter on the floors of their henhouses or dust from the bedding, she said.

Josh Balk, outreach director of the Factory Farm Campaign for The Humane Society of the United States, said the inherently bad conditions in battery-cage facilities can’t be resolved managerially, while any issues in a cage-free setting can be fixed by changes in management practices.

Diane Storey, spokeswoman for United Egg Producers, said the organization supports consumer choice and has producers that use both battery-cage and cage-free methods, which experts have labeled ethical.

While students will not be affected by the increased cost of eggs in their meal plans, they still have varying opinions on the use of cage-free eggs.

Biomedical engineering sophomore Minn Lee said her mom buys cage-free eggs, and she supports the effort, especially because it doesn’t affect student meal plan prices.

“Personally, I think the little extra cost is worth it,” she said.

First-year student Ben Pisani said the issue is not something he thinks about, even though at his home in Australia he eats free-range eggs.

“If I had to pay,” he said, “I’d probably say no.”

DeVet said overall the response to the cage-free switch has been positive.

The switch is part of the UDS sustainability initiative, which includes the use of fair-trade coffee, more organic and locally-grown food options and increased recycling efforts.