Egg-laying hens

This 2008 photo shows chickens in their cages at an egg processing plant in California. Oregon, Washington and California now have laws requiring cage-free environments for hens.

SALEM — Commercial egg farms in Oregon and Washington are primed to invest millions of dollars retrofitting chicken coops after legislators in each state passed laws requiring cage-free hen housing by 2024.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed House Bill 2049 in May, and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown followed suit by signing Senate Bill 1019 on Aug. 9. Both bills are nearly identical, eventually banning the sale of eggs produced by caged birds.

Farms must remove cages by the end of 2023, and provide facilities that allow hens to exhibit natural behaviors such as scratch areas, perches, nest boxes and dust bathing areas. The measures exempt farms with fewer than 3,000 egg-laying hens.

Craig Smith, director of government affairs for Food Northwest, representing food processors in Oregon, Washington and Idaho, said producers are making a huge commitment by going 100% cage-free.

"It's a big deal," Smith said. "It requires completely changing the cage systems that are already in place in those (hen) houses ... It's big dollars, and a pretty short time frame."

Food Northwest represents five companies in Oregon and Washington that will be impacted by the laws. A sixth company, Willamette Egg Farms, is not a member of Food Northwest.

A representative of Post Holdings, which purchased Willamette Egg Farms in 2015, did not return calls for comment.

Smith said members negotiated the bills in each state with the Humane Society of the United States, which previously backed similar ballot measures that passed in Massachusetts and California. With Oregon and Washington on board, that means the entire West Coast is now committed to cage-free commercial egg production.

Josh Balk, vice president of farm animal protection at the Humane Society, said he is confident Northwest producers are in a good position to adapt their operations.

"The operations that use cages have literally millions of birds," Balk said. "This vastly improves the welfare of the animals, while still ensuring commercial viability."

Most egg-laying hens kept in cages are given less space than a single sheet of paper to live, Balk said. "Cage-free housing" follows certification standards set forth by the United Egg Producers, providing enough room to move and stretch their wings while nesting in vertical or horizontal aviaries.

Consumer attitudes are driving the push to cage-free, Balk said, and some of the largest food companies in the country — including McDonald's, Walmart, Costco and Safeway — now have policies to buy cage-free eggs. McDonald's, which buys 2.2 billion eggs per year, announced in April it plans to go 100% cage-free by 2025.

"It's smart to create the standards that the largest egg buyers in the country are also asking for," Balk said.

Smith acknowledged consumer demand for cage-free eggs, and said it made sense for producers to work with the Humane Society on crafting rules that will create long-term certainty in the industry.

"It's going to be the standard in the future," he said. "I think the industry really did what they thought was the right thing and took a very principled approach."

Because egg prices are not likely to increase by much, Smith said it could be years before the investment begins paying off for Northwest farms. The hope, he said, is that they can be successful differentiating their product and sell into cage-free markets that others around the country cannot meet.

"There's no question the payoff will be long-term," Smith said. "Making this investment is huge for our guys."

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