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General Mills goes cage-free as better animal welfare moves mainstream (+video)

General Mills announced Tuesday that it will commit to using 100 percent cage-free eggs as part of a program to improve its animal welfare standards. The shift may take some time but comes as the global egg industry has largely moved away from eggs produced by hens in cramped battery cages. 

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    Cage-free chickens hang out up high in a new chicken house at Hilliker Egg Ranch, on Nov. 6, 2014, in Lakeside, Calif. General Mills will convert to 100 percent cage-free eggs in its products, the company announced Tuesday, July 7, 2015.
    Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
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Last month, it was artificial ingredients. This week, it’s conventionally raised eggs.

General Mills announced Tuesday that it will commit to using 100 percent cage-free eggs as part of a program to improve its animal welfare standards. The Minneapolis-based food processor is one the largest in the world and uses eggs in a wide range of its pre-packaged products from brands like Betty Crocker, Häagen-Dazs, and Progresso Soups.

“Eggs are an important ingredient in many of our products, and we strive to ensure that the hens laying these eggs are treated humanely,” General Mills said in a statement outlining its animal welfare policy. The company cautioned, however, that the changes could take time.

“We commit to working toward 100 percent cage free eggs for our U.S. operations,” the statement reads. “We recognize that the current avian influenza outbreak has been deeply disruptive to the US egg supply and producers.  As the industry works to rebuild its supply chain, we will work with suppliers to determine a path and reasonable timeline toward this commitment.”

General Mills’ announcement comes as the food industry at large is moving toward cage-free and free-range egg production. For decades, starting in the middle of the 20th  century, most egg production came from hens in tightly packed, metal battery cages. Activists and many public health experts have long opposed the practice, citing cramped conditions for the hens and the easy spread of filth and disease. 

Several European countries began phasing out battery cages in the 1990s, and the EU banned the practice in 2012. But the American poultry industry is just starting to catch up. In 2008, Californians voted to require the state’s poultry farmers to allow hens enough room to walk in a circle and stretch their wings, but lawmakers in several states have defeated other animal welfare measures.

Since then,  however, several major US companies, including Wal-Mart, Kellogg, Nestlé, Starbucks, and Dunkin’ Brands have signed pledges to eliminate battery cages from their production streams. Animal welfare advocates have applauded the shift, and noted that the time is ripe for the industry to change in the face of rising conventional egg and poultry prices.

“As the egg industry considers its production strategies in light of the impact of bird flu on cage confinement facilities, there’s an opportunity for the industry to pivot away from caging hens altogether and make the transition to higher-welfare, cage-free systems,” Humane Society president and CEO Wayne Pacelle wrote in a Tuesday blog post.

General Mills’ shift is part of a larger strategy for improved animal welfare among its suppliers. Other changes will affect the company’s pork, dairy, and poultry partners.

Meanwhile, concern for animal welfare has quickly become a paramount concern among American consumers. In a nationwide poll taken last year by the Monitor’s polling partner TIPP (and reported in a December 2014 cover story),  “56 percent of Americans said they would pay more money to know their eggs came from hens raised with enough space to stretch their limbs. And 49 percent said they would be willing to pay more for their bacon, ham, or pork if they knew it came from pigs whose pregnant mothers had been raised with enough space to stretch.” 

On the egg front, obstacles remain. Only two states, California and Michigan, have successfully introduced laws to phase out battery cages, and concerns about treatment of technically cage-free laying hens, including overcrowding and beak removal, still linger. But it's still an important step forward, Mr. Pacelle writes. 

“Common sense and sound science tell us that warehousing animals in cramped cages is bad for both the animals and for us," he adds. "Now, with many food companies like General Mills pledging to eliminate chicken cages from their egg supplier chains, the egg industry can accelerate its own shift toward cage-free housing. For the sake of animals and consumers, it can’t happen fast enough.”

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