Egg producers would have to triple the number of laying hens kept in so-called cage-free housing to make good on their promise to meet demands for restaurant and retail chains by 2025.

Only 16.8 percent of U.S. laying hens are currently in “cage-free” housing.

Egg producers do not appear to be making as rapid conversion to “cage-free” housing from its traditional battery cages. That puts all of those 2025 promises in doubt.

Purdue University’s Jayson Lusk presented new research on the egg market at the Animal Agriculture Alliance’s recent stakeholders summit. Lusk, distinguished professor, and director of Purdue’s Department of Agriculture Economics. The Food Marketing Institute, Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research and the Animal Agriculture Alliance sponsored Lusk’s work.

Hen housing changes have been a topic for egg productions since 2008 when California voters passed Proposition 2. It required eggs sold in the state to be from “cage-free” hens by 2015. “Cage free” does not mean hens are not confined, but space to lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs and turn around freely is required.

Before Proposition 2 passed, less than 10 percent of laying hens were “cage-free.”

Cage-free eggs, however, are more costly. Lusk found recent USDA price data showing cage-free eggs selling for $2.40 per dozen while regular eggs were going for $1.44 per dozen.

Asking people if they support “cage-free” eggs is the wrong question, according to the Perdue expert. “The question really is: Are you willing to pay more than one dollar per dozen for these eggs,” he said.

Lusk’s “Willing to Pay” research involving thousands of consumers has found only a small fraction willing to pay sizeable amounts for the “cage-free” label. His bottom line seems to be that animal welfare and environmental groups are rising consumer concerns, the primary drivers are price, safety, taste and nutrition.

Two years ago, the Laying Hen Housing Research Project by the Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply found “cage-free” and conventional cages shed Salmonella at similar rates. The project also found the prevalence of Salmonella associated with egg shells was low and did not differ between housing systems.

Housing systems did not influence the rate of egg quality decline though 12 weeks of extended storage and U.S. egg quality standards and grades were found to be adequate for all three housing systems.

The coalition — led by McDonald’s, Cargill Kitchen Solutions, the American Humane Association, Michigan State University, the University of California-Davis and the Center for Food Integrity — also found housing types did not result in differences in the immune systems of hens or the effectiveness of their Salmonella vaccinations.

Egg production in the U.S. currently exceeds $13.5 billion and involves 332.4 million laying hens producing more than 100 billion eggs annually.

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