Despite all the recent headlines, cage-free eggs still represent a small slice of the industry.
FORRESTON, Ill. — Inside a long barn next to rolling fields, Rod Wubbena looked out over 12,000 or so brown hens scratching in the wood chips and fluttering onto perches.
The chickens have always been cage-free at Phil’s Fresh Eggs, headquartered in a small farming town in northwest Illinois, one of the first commercial egg farms in the U.S. to market and produce cage-free eggs.
Now that niche is vanishing.
“I always felt as long as there was caged-egg production out there, there were going to be consumers that would buy Phil’s Eggs,” said Rod Wubbena, 58, who bought the family business from his father, Phil, in 2002. “Now the challenge is how do I make Phil’s Eggs different from everybody else that’s jumping into the pool?”
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Almost every week, it seems, a major food company — Dunkin’ Donuts, General Mills and Taco Bell recently — announces its transition to cage-free eggs, amounting to a monumental shift in the industry. Hens shouldn’t be kept in cages that allow less space per bird than a piece of notebook paper, a familiar refrain from animal-welfare activists that’s resonating with consumers and driving companies.
Getting to this point hasn’t been a matter of simply opening the barn doors and setting the birds free. The movement has pitted the egg industry against animal-rights groups, with both sides flinging accusations of bias and wielding science to support their viewpoints.
Cage-free hen housing systems can carry their own challenges, according to some research, like the birds’ propensity to peck and eat one another.
For companies making the switch, there’s the feel-good public-relations angle to consider, far simpler than the science.
“Enriched colony (another type of hen housing) doesn’t mean anything to our customers, but they know what cage-free means,” said Marion Gross, senior vice president of supply-chain management for McDonald’s.
Gross cited “customer sentiment” as an important factor that led McDonald’s and its 2 billion-eggs-a-year purchasing clout to make the cage-free leap in September when it declared it would transition fully to cage-free eggs over the next 10 years.
It was like a giant doing a cannonball into the pool. The ripples are still being felt.
“The biggest earthquake in the egg industry was the McDonald’s announcement,” said Paul Shapiro, vice president of farm-animal protection for The Humane Society of the United States, which advocates for cage-free hen housing among many other animal-welfare causes.
Shapiro called McDonald’s decision “the strongest signal yet to the egg industry that the future is without cages.”
Despite all the recent headlines, cage-free eggs still represent a small slice of the industry. Commercial egg-laying hens laying organic and nonorganic cage-free eggs accounted for 8.6 percent of the 274.3 million commercial egg-laying hens in the U.S. in September, according to data from the Agriculture Department.
That’s almost double the number of cage-free hens from just five years ago.
Rod Wubbena said he believes consumers should decide what type of eggs they want instead of having the government decide for them. He also felt the failed 2014 legislation would have placed an unfair burden on small and medium-sized egg farms trying to adapt to one-size-fits-all regulations.
“In the end, it’s always the farmer’s end interest to take care of his livestock,” Wubbena said. “Whether they’re in a cage, whether they’re cage-free, you’re going to want to take care of your birds because that’s your livelihood.”
Cage-free egg facilities may not look like what many consumers envision, as Wubbena readily acknowledged on a recent tour of the Phil’s Fresh Eggs barns.
Inside the growing barn, the 12,000 13-week-old brown hens shuffled and strutted in the wood chips, kicking up dust. They were free to roam the cavernous structure, but most gathered in the middle of the vast building, leaving abundant space available on the sides of the barn. They drank water from a watering system, nibbled feed from a pan.
Occasionally, a sudden bird movement set off a cacophony of squawks and flapping wings, quickly subsiding to cooing and clucking.
Those in need of some personal space rested on wooden perches.
“Every flock is different. You could build two identical cage-free barns and get different results out of them,” Wubbena said. “That’s part of that learning curve the big boys are going to have to learn about.”
Once they’re 17 weeks old, the hens will be moved to one of the nearby laying barns. At 24 weeks, the hens will be at peak production, laying an egg almost daily, Wubbena said, and will be kept until about 85 weeks, when they’ll be sent off to be processed for soups and other foods.
At Phil’s, the hens lay most of their eggs in partially enclosed nesting areas with slightly tilted floors to allow the eggs to roll onto a conveyor belt that carries them into a separate building to be loaded and taken in the middle of town.
Though the barns at Phil’s Fresh Eggs are without the “bells and whistles” of more modern systems, the company has decades of experience at making it work, Wubbena said. In the early 1950s, Phil Wubbena bought a dairy farm on the edge of town, eventually got rid of the cows and focused the entire operation on eggs.
Betty Wubbena, 81, Rod’s mother, used to wash eggs at night after putting her four children to bed. “He was a man ahead of his time,” she said of her late husband. “He didn’t do it for money. He believed in the humane treatment of animals.”
At first, the Wubbenas sold eggs to independent natural food stores in the Chicago area before the emergence of large chains like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, Wubbena said. In the early 1980s, the eggs made their way into Chicago-area Jewel grocery stores under the name “Nest Eggs.”
Today, Phil’s Fresh Eggs produces about 350,000 eggs per week, cleaned, weighed and packaged in a small plant in downtown Forreston. Beyond its own flocks, Phil’s also contracts with farms in northwest Illinois and southern Wisconsin, Wubbena said.
Phil Wubbena died in 2009 at age 79. In 2015, Rod sold the family farm to a larger Illinois egg farm, Pearl Valley Farms. Phil’s Fresh Eggs is now a subsidiary of Pearl Valley; Wubbena still runs the operation.
With Pearl Valley, Phil’s Fresh Eggs is working on its next niche, Wubbena said, which involves enhancing the nutritional value of the eggs through the feed given to the birds. Eggs and liquid egg products bolstered with omega-3 essential fatty acids represent the future for Phil’s Fresh Eggs.