Colorado grocery shoppers are soon guaranteed cage-free eggs as 2023 transition approaches, with mixed industry reaction

A state law requiring that all eggs sold in Colorado’s grocery stores be cage-free goes into effect on Jan. 1, and businesses, producers and consumers will all feel the impact of the change.

The regulatory agency overseeing the transition expects to give grocery stores and other businesses time to upgrade their supply chains, so they can be fully compliant with the new regulations — meaning they won’t start handing out fines next month.

Same goes for producers, who will have until Jan. 1, 2025, to produce only cage-free eggs, according to the Colorado Department of Agriculture.

And consumers will notice a change at the cash register once the mandate is fully in effect as the cost of a dozen eggs is expected to jump — by $1 to $2, according to one farmer’s estimate. “Producing eggs in a cage-free system costs an estimated 36% more than in a conventional production system” — and both inflation and supply pressures could make it even more expensive, the American Farm Bureau Federation reports.

The law is receiving mixed reviews from Colorado’s livestock industry. The Rocky Mountain Farmers Union supports the move, said Executive Director Ben Rainbolt. Montrose farmer Scott Scarborough called it “a good thing to keep them out of the cage.”

The Colorado Farm Bureau opposes the mandated timeline, as there’s “no flexibility for farmers to implement new housing when it worked best for their business,” said Austin Vincent, general counsel and director of state affairs. He said the changes mean customers pay higher prices with fewer options.

Instead, the organization backs “voluntary, consumer-driven production practices.”

Bill Scebbi, executive director of the Colorado Egg Producers Association, declined to identify the group’s specific stance on the directive, but said the state’s egg industry “took a very proactive position on the legislation,” working with Colorado’s Agriculture Department on it.

State lawmakers passed House Bill 20-1343 in 2020, which requires cage-free housing with specific enclosure measurements. Colorado isn’t the only state to move in this direction. California’s similar proposition took effect earlier this year.

“Colorado’s ban on the production and in-state sale of eggs from battery cage systems mirrors laws passed by 14 other states to phase out the most extreme forms of confinement,” said Kara Shannon, director of farm animal welfare policy at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, or ASPCA.

However, farms with 3,000 or fewer egg-laying hens are exempt from the new rule, as are those for medical research, veterinary procedures, slaughter and more. Farm owners must also receive compliance certifications, which include inspections and annual renewals.

U.S. egg production reached almost 97 billion in 2020, with 325 million commercial laying hens at the year’s end, according to United Egg Producers. Colorado doesn’t rank in the top 10 states for egg production, with the list including Iowa, Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania.

Notably, “at the end of 2020, 28% of all hens were in cage-free production.” In recent years, the U.S. Agriculture Department has noted a shift in the preference of restaurants, grocers, distributors and more, as they gravitate toward purchasing cage-free eggs.

“Many Colorado restaurants are already on board,” said Denise Mickelsen, communication director of the Colorado Restaurant Association. She pointed to Snooze A.M. Eatery as an example, which uses 100% cage-free egg products.

Cage-free and other labels: What’s the difference?

Laura Strange of the National Grocers Association called the transition to a 100% cage-free egg supply “a complex decision that has implications for food costs, supply chain logistics and even animal welfare.”

Her trade association represents independent retail and wholesale grocers, which she said “are in the business of meeting a diverse range of consumer demands.”

The Colorado Department of Agriculture declined to comment on how the shift to cage-free eggs will affect consumer pricing, as it doesn’t track economic or availability data, said spokesperson Olga Robak. However, she noted that, on top of food prices generally increasing, the U.S. Agriculture Department found that several factors have recently triggered high egg prices, including highly pathogenic avian influenza, strong consumer demand for shell eggs and food price inflation.

At a King Soopers in Denver on Dec. 2, medium Grade AA eggs from the Kroger brand cost $3.69, while its extra-large Grade AA option went for $3.99 and jumbo Grade A was $4.19.

A carton of Nellie’s Free Range Eggs — size large — was priced at $5.49, and Happy Egg Co.’s free-range, large eggs sat at $5.99. The most expensive options included Eggland’s Best organic eggs for $6.99 and organic, pasture-raised eggs from Vital Farms for $7.99.

Jessica Trowbridge, King Soopers spokesperson, described Kroger as “a leader in cage-free eggs for many years.”

The preference of the company’s customer base has shifted to cage-free at “an increasing rate,” so stores under the Kroger umbrella already offer “affordable cage-free eggs” through Simple Truth and Simple Truth Organic — both owned by the brand.

“The Kroger family of stores is committed to working with our suppliers during this transition in a way that ensures eggs are readily available, safely produced, and affordably priced for all of our customers,” she said.

Customers stocking up for breakfast at grocery stores can end up scratching their heads at the egg aisle, wondering what “cage-free” and other labels on the cartons actually mean.

Scarborough, owner and head farmer of City Farm, LLC, in Montrose, explained that the most common, economical approach to producing eggs is by caging hens, but “it’s not very humane.”

“These birds don’t move at all,” he said. “They’re not eating a natural diet.”

Farmers started moving chickens indoors in the 1930s to protect them from weather, predators and disease, according to United Egg Producers. The cage system developed in the late 1940s to address sanitation, waste and pecking order challenges, becoming the predominant method by the 1960s.

United Egg Producers described hens as “productive and healthier” as a result.

Scarborough said cage-free gives birds more space, although they remain in buildings, like barns, without outdoor access. In Colorado, egg farmers will now undergo a process, including an inspection, to receive a certificate from the state’s Agriculture Department that confirms they’re cage-free compliant.

The certificates must be renewed annually, and cartons for sale in Colorado must be labeled “CO-COM.”

“By including enrichments such as scratch areas, perches, nest boxes, and dust bathing, cage-free housing allows hens to exhibit their natural behaviors,” said Julie Mizak, the Colorado Agriculture Department’s egg program manager.

Free-range means chickens are allotted time outside, but that can be limited, Scarborough said. He called it “a better situation” for birds than the previous approaches.

To be pasture-raised, farmers need a lot of land acreage to accommodate the hens, but they can roam unencumbered, and eat bugs and different grasses, on top of commercial feed. “They’re experiencing what a chicken should experience.”

“We just want to do what the consumer wants”

Scarborough, who also raises pigs and cows, will soon have 4,500 hens on his hands. In the specialty egg business for about six years, he and his wife use the free-range and pasture-raised approaches.

It costs more to do so, and Colorado weather, including freezing temperatures, can cause difficulties for him. “That’s why not very many people do it.”

But he’s one step ahead of the upcoming industry shift to cage-free eggs

Scarborough predicts consumers will pay $1 or $2 more for a dozen cage-free eggs, and it will also require a lot of investment from farmers who need to transition.

“It’s a good thing to keep them out of the cage,” he said. “It is good that people finally decided to say, ‘Hey, we gotta eat the right stuff, and this is how we do it.’ ”

Scebbi of the Colorado Egg Producers Association described the cage-free eggs issue as “very interesting and very confusing.”

The public gets the “wrong impression” about the caged approach, he said, defending it as the “most humane and healthy environment for hens.”

Across their lifespans, the chickens hatch and reside in barns. “Some people might think that’s terrible, but it’s not,” Scebbi said, calling it a controlled environment.

When it comes to keeping chickens outdoors, “in our state, it doesn’t work,” as Colorado’s climate differs from the Midwest and the South. He argues that the nutrition, protein and quality of eggs are “all the same” across the board.

“Today, our hens are producing more eggs and living longer,” Scebbi said. Five family farms produce 1 billion eggs annually in Colorado, he added.

Right now, the industry’s biggest battle isn’t legislative in nature, but viral. Farmers are fighting highly pathogenic avian influenza, which is fatal to domestic poultry.

“We just want to do what the consumer wants us to do,” Scebbi said. “If they believe that cage-free is what they want, that’s what we want to produce.”

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