Grocery Stores Forced to Carry CAFO Eggs

cafo eggs

Story at-a-glance -

  • A bill introduced in Iowa would require grocery stores in the state to always carry CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation) eggs
  • The pitch is that cage-free eggs can be more expensive, so the bill is supposed to protect consumers’ access to cheaper eggs and ensure “consumer choice,” but what it’s really about is protecting the interests of industrialized agriculture
  • Clearly Big Ag is getting nervous; even Walmart has said it will eventually source its eggs from cage-free operations, but the bill, if passed, would require them to still carry CAFO eggs in its Iowa stores

By Dr. Mercola

In the U.S., 94 percent of eggs produced come from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), or factory farms,1 where hens, so-called "caged layers," spend their entire lives in small wire battery cages. Each hen gets a space that's smaller than a standard sheet of paper where she's unable to even spread her wings. This practice is undeniably cruel, with the hens suffering severe health problems as a result of their immobility, from spinal cord deterioration leading to paralysis to muscle and bone wasting.

Battery cages have already been banned in the European Union, and in the U.S. demand is growing for more humane — and healthier — cage-free options. In fact, about 100 grocery chains, 60 restaurant chains and other food businesses have said they plan to switch to cage-free eggs in the next 10 years, a move that would affect about 70 percent of the U.S. egg demand.2

This would require the majority of CAFO egg producers to rethink the cheap way they're churning out eggs, so not surprisingly there's been some resistance from the industry.

Among the most brazen is a bill introduced in Iowa that would require grocery stores in the state to always carry CAFO eggs.3 The pitch is that cage-free eggs can be more expensive, so the bill is supposed to protect consumers’ access to cheaper eggs and ensure “consumer choice,” but what it’s really about is protecting the interests of industrialized agriculture.

Clearly Big Ag is getting nervous; even Walmart has said it will eventually source its eggs from cage-free operations, but the bill, if it's passed, would require them to still carry CAFO eggs in its Iowa stores.4

CAFO Chicken Producers Are Dirty Birds

In addition to eggs, CAFOs also supply the vast majority of chicken bought and consumed in the U.S., with similar concerns about animal welfare, public health and environmental pollution. Big Chicken, including big names such as Tyson Foods, Perdue Farms, Pilgrim's Pride, Koch Farms and Sanderson Farm, has also been hit with a number of lawsuits recently alleging they engaged in a conspiracy to raise and fix prices over the last decade.

"Historically, broiler chicken was priced on a boom-and-bust cycle — when prices for chicken went up, so did supply; then, prices would fall," WUWM reported.5 More recently, however, the price of broiler chickens has stabilized and risen, even as input costs, such as corn and soy for feed, have dropped. The game-changer appears to be Agri Stats, a software program that allows poultry companies to share data such as production numbers, bird sizes and financial returns.

"The database company gathers information from 95 percent of poultry processors and tracks 22 million birds a day. Companies can then use this information, according to farmers, retailers and distributors, to set a higher price for all their products," according to WUWM.6

A Bloomberg report also revealed that profit margins at some leading chicken producers grew exponentially in recent years. For Tyson, profits rose from 1.6 percent to 11.9 percent from 2009 to 2016 and, for Pilgrim’s Pride, from 3.8 percent to nearly 13 percent between 2012 and 2015.7,8

In 2016, a lawsuit from Maplevale Farms, a food wholesaler, was filed against Tyson and Pilgrim’s alleging the companies were in collusion to increase broiler wholesale prices by nearly 50 percent from 2008, causing Maplevale to pay inflated prices. Another lawsuit, filed in 2017 by several farmers against Tyson, Pilgrim’s Pride, Perdue, Sanderson, Koch and others, alleges the companies formed a cartel to keep down farmers’ wages. WUWM continued:9

"In April 2017, Chicken Kitchen, a restaurant franchiser, brought a similar lawsuit against Tyson Foods, alleging that the company 'conspired to fix, maintain and stabilize the price of Broilers by limiting production with the intent of increasing Broiler prices in the United States.'

On Jan. 12, the Southern supermarket chains Winn-Dixie and Bi-Lo filed suit against Koch Foods, Tyson, Pilgrim's Pride, and others alleging that the processors restricted supply in order to keep prices high. US Foods and Sysco followed with separate lawsuits on Jan. 30."

Many are also not aware that, in addition to allegedly trying to shortchange farmers' wages, the industry pays its farmers via a tournament or "gladiator system," which pits farmers against each other. Those ranked in the top half (producing the fattest chickens with the least amount of feed, for instance) receive a bonus payment while those at the bottom will get a penalty. That may mean the farmers at the bottom receive about half the pay for the same number of chickens.10

100 Percent Natural, Really?

Sanderson Farms is no stranger to lawsuits. In June 2017, the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), Friends of the Earth (FoE) and Center for Food Safety (CFS) filed a lawsuit against Sanderson Farms for falsely advertising their products as "100% Natural." In reality, testing by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) National Residue Program revealed a battery of unnatural residues in the chicken, including:

Antibiotics for human use, including one prohibited for use in food animals

Ketamine, a drug that causes hallucinogenic effects that is not approved for use in poultry

Ketoprofen, an anti-inflammatory drug

Predisone, a steroid

Two growth hormones banned for use in poultry

Amoxicillin, a human antibiotic not approved for use in poultry

Penicillin residues

Pesticides

Out of 69 inspections of Sanderson Farms in various states from November 2015 to November 2016, 49 found residues that were far from "natural."11 Although Sanderson's claims their chicken is "nothing but chicken," it actually contains a number of residues that are not disclosed on the label. Ronnie Cummins, OCA's international director, told Sustainable Pulse:12

"Consumers should be alarmed that any food they eat contains steroids, recreational or anti-inflammatory drugs, or antibiotics prohibited for use in livestock — much less that these foods are falsely advertised and labeled '100% Natural' … Sanderson's advertising claims are egregiously misleading to consumers, and unfair to competitors.

The organic and free-range poultry sector would be growing much more rapidly if consumers knew the truth about Sanderson's products and false advertising."

Meanwhile, Sanderson is fighting back against the OCA's suit; they filed a motion for sanctions in February 2018, and it remains a "buyer beware" market when it comes to these types of label claims. When sorting through "natural" and "antibiotic free" labels available, it's important to be aware of the "fine print" in many cases. In Perdue's No Antibiotics Ever program, for instance, it means just that.

However, if the label states only "responsible antibiotic use," "veterinarian-approved antibiotic use," "no antibiotic residue" or "100% natural," antibiotics may have been used in the hatchery while the chick is in the egg. Even if a product is labeled organic, it could have had antibiotics used in the hatchery. The exception is if it is labeled organic and "raised without antibiotics."

In this case, it means no antibiotics were used at any point. Other loopholes include stating "no human antibiotics," but this means other animal antibiotics may be used.

Claims to watch out for include the "no growth-promoting antibiotics" label and the no "critically important" antibiotics label or claims. In the former case, it means antibiotics may still be used for disease prevention and in the latter, most critically important antibiotics aren't used in poultry production anyway, so the "claim doesn't translate to meaningful change in antibiotic use," according to Consumer Reports.13

As for the USDA's definition of "natural," it only means a product contains "no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed. Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product." Under this vague description, Bloomberg noted, "even chicken nuggets — that emblem of highly processed, additive-laden, junk food — have borne the '100% natural' label."14

Sanderson Says Not Enough Antibiotics Used

Sanderson Farms, the third-largest poultry producer in the U.S., which processes more than 10.6 million chickens every week, is the only large producer that has refused to commit to limiting antibiotics use.15 In February 2017, a Sanderson Farms shareholder proposal that requested the company phase out the use of medically important antibiotics even failed to pass.16

The company has stated that using antibiotics preventively in food animals is not dangerous to human health17 and, as of February 2018, they still state on their website FAQs section, "After deliberate and careful consideration, we do not plan to withdraw antibiotics from our program at this time."18 Meanwhile, they've even gone so far as to claim that the U.S. is currently facing a surplus of antibiotic-free chicken.

In a regulatory filing, Sanderson said that while 40.5 percent of U.S. fresh chicken production was made up of antibiotic-free birds, only 6.4 percent of it was sold as antibiotic-free. While neglecting to identify the sources of the data, Sanderson also claimed that consumers mostly want antibiotic-free breast meat and chicken tenders, which means chicken producers must then sell the rest of the antibiotic-free meat at lower prices, even though it cost more to produce.19

In the filing, Sanderson claimed, "Industry data indicate that the supply of ABF [antibiotic-free] chicken is currently significantly greater than demand for the product, and that oversupply has increased." They also continue to assert that using antibiotics is beneficial for both animal welfare and the company, telling Reuters, "It allows us to produce product at a more affordable price point."20

Never mind that, as a result of the overuse of antibiotics, especially for purposes of growth promotion or providing low doses to prevent diseases that are likely to occur when animals are raised in dirty and overcrowded living conditions, the threat of antimicrobial resistance is increasing around the globe.21

Meanwhile, even some Sanderson shareholders support the end of antibiotic use. At the company’s annual meeting held February 15, 2018, 43 percent of Sanderson’s investors supported a proposal urging the company to stop its use of medically important antibiotics for disease prevention in healthy chickens — up from 30 percent who supported a similar proposal in 2017. Sanderson, however, had reportedly “urged investors to vote no on the proposal.”22

Why Is Government Entertaining the Idea of Protecting CAFOs?

As for the Iowa bill that would force stores to carry a certain product, namely CAFO eggs, it’s disturbing though not surprising given the government’s history of protecting industrialized agriculture. Consider Vande Bunte Eggs in Michigan, an egg-laying chicken CAFO that houses 1.6 million birds. With more than 200 state permit violations in the span of three years, you might think the facility would be in danger of being shut down.

Instead, it's received more than $1 million in federal subsidies. The company's Tim Vande Bunte also testified in support of Senate Bill 660, which was introduced in December 2017 and would push back the deadline for Michigan egg producers to provide cage-free chicken housing from 2020 to 2025.23

Vande Bunte's many violations are but one example cited in a report compiled by the Environmentally Concerned Citizens of South Central Michigan.24,25 The report analyzed 272 CAFOs in Michigan and found they had collectively received more than $103 million in federal subsidies between 1995 and 2014, all while racking up 644 environmental permit violations by the end of 2016.

Meanwhile, in early 2017, 35 advocacy groups, including Food & Water Watch, called on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to close federal loopholes that are allowing CAFOs to continue polluting the planet. In a petition, the groups asked the EPA to require CAFOs housing a certain number of animals or using a certain kind of manure management system to obtain a permit. The EPA has said that up to 75 percent of CAFOs need permits but only 40 percent have them.

What's the Best Source for Chicken and Eggs?

Choosing food that comes from small regenerative farms — not CAFOs — is crucial. While avoiding CAFO meats, look for antibiotic-free alternatives raised by organic and regenerative farmers. Unfortunately, loopholes abound, allowing CAFO-raised chickens and eggs to masquerade as "free-range" and "organic."

The Cornucopia Institute addressed some of these issues their egg report and scorecard, which ranks egg producers according to 28 organic criteria. It can help you to make a more educated choice if you’re buying your eggs at the supermarket.

Ultimately, to find safer, more humane and environmentally friendly chicken and eggs, the best choice is to get to know a local farmer and get your meat and eggs there directly. Alternatively, you might consider raising your own backyard chickens, though requirements vary widely depending on your locale, with many limiting the number of chickens you can raise or requiring quarterly inspections (at a cost) and permits, so check with your city before taking the plunge.

If you don't want to raise your own chickens but still want farm-fresh eggs, you have many options. Finding high-quality organic, pastured eggs locally is getting easier, as virtually every rural area has individuals with chickens. If you live in an urban area, visiting the local health food stores is typically the quickest route to finding high-quality local egg sources. Farmers markets and food co-ops are another great way to meet people producing food the right way.