Initial Grants to Support Corporate Cage-free Reforms

When I started as the Open Philanthropy Project's Farm Animal Welfare Program Officer in October, I decided to prioritize investigating opportunities to speed up the corporate transition away from using eggs from caged hens. Based on that investigation, the Open Philanthropy Project recommended three grants, totaling $2.5 million over two years, to the Humane League, Mercy for Animals, and the Humane Society of the United States' Farm Animal Protection Campaign. This post explains why I wanted to make our first farm animal welfare grants on corporate cage-free campaigns.

In brief:

  • Battery cages cause severe suffering, and cage-free systems are much better.
  • Corporate cage-free campaigns are tractable and high-impact, with a strong recent track record.
  • The cost-effectiveness of these campaigns, in terms of animal suffering averted per dollar, looks better than any alternatives I'm aware of.
  • I don't see these campaigns as representing a “short-term-only” approach. I see them as a logical step along a long-term path toward greatly reduced farm animal suffering, and I think they're competitive with other approaches when thought of in these terms.
  • I believe our funding has made and will continue to make a tangible difference to the success of these campaigns.

Details follow.

Battery cages cause severe suffering, and cage-free systems are much better

At any time, about 265 million U.S. egg-laying hens are confined in microwave oven-sized cages, typically with 4-11 hens per cage, and denied the space to perform their most basic instincts: to perch, lay their eggs in a nest, or flap their wings. Peter Singer has called these caged hens “the most closely confined, overcrowded and generally miserable animals in America.”

Cage-free systems aren't perfect, but they're much better than cages. In the most comprehensive review I know of, Dutch researchers ranked hen housing systems on a 0 to 10 welfare scale: battery cages got a zero and “enriched” cages got a 2.3, while all cage-free systems got at least a 5.8. The researchers found that, unlike battery cages, cage-free systems provide for six of hens' top 10 welfare needs: adequate space, perches, nesting boxes, space to preen, scratching spaces, and litter for dust bathing (the other top needs, like food and water, are mostly common to all systems).

Most U.S. cage-free egg production is done under UEP and AHA standards, which require these enrichments plus more than twice the floor space per hen provided by battery cages (in addition to the much greater vertical space). These standards are enforced through annual audits, and are much better than UEP and AHA's cage egg standards. But we don't have faith in UEP or AHA, and hope that advocates will continue to push companies toward enforcement of their cage-free pledges through independent schemes like Global Animal Partnership.

I'm aware that some animal activists disagree with our view on the benefits of cage-free systems, but I haven't found their counterarguments compelling. As an example, I'll address a recent blog post by Direct Action Everywhere.

The piece identifies four welfare indicators that it thinks are worse in cage-free systems than in cages: mortality, air quality, stress, and overcrowding. It primarily supports these claims by citing studies conducted by the Coalition for a Sustainable Egg Supply, a project funded by the egg industry and major food producers.

As an initial matter, it's worth noting that the Coalition's studies do not support the piece's claims on stress or overcrowding. The Coalition found (PDF), “Overall, the physiological data were not suggestive of differences in long-term or short-term stress between the three housing systems.” And the Coalition said nothing about crowding – presumably because crowding is at least twice as bad in caged facilities as cage-free ones, per industry standards. The Coalition's findings on mortality and ammonia in cage-free systems are also flawed because the study's design favored caged systems. One independent study concluded that “it is difficult to classify different housing systems for laying hens on the basis of mortality because mortality is influenced by … condition during the early rearing period, management during the laying period, and the type of laying hen strains used for production." Yet the Coalition's study confounded all three variables: its cage-free hens were reared partly in cages and hence ill-prepared for cage-free living, managed by a farm operator that had only ever managed caged systems, and of a breed seldom used in cage-free production.

More broadly, I think this shows the problems with relying on one industry-funded study to generalize about animal welfare. For instance, many studies contradict what the piece claims is “a consensus in the literature” that mortality rates are worse in cage-free systems (see, e.g., Ohh, et al., 2014, Singh, et al., 2009, Merle, et al., 2009), and the Dutch review found that air quality, which the piece focuses heavily on, is just the 21st most important welfare attribute for hens.

Corporate cage-free campaigns are tractable and high-impact

Since 2014, advocates have now secured cage-free pledges from over 100 major food companies, including McDonald's, Costco, Subway, Safeway, and Kroger (of these, only McDonald's pledge had been publicly announced at the time we were making grant decisions). My best guess is that these pledges, once implemented, will spare roughly 125 million hens annually from battery cage confinement – more than the number of beef cattle and dairy cows in the U.S. combined.

I'm confident that advocates were critical to almost all of these cage-free pledges based on the following evidence:

  • Extensive conversations with cage-free negotiators and subsequent comparisons between their narratives of change and public news reports. I also fact-checked these narratives with senior executives at two major companies that pledged to go cage-free.
  • Timing, e.g. in one case the Costco CEO refused to institute a cage-free policy, only for Costco to pledge to go cage-free months later following an intensifying advocacy campaign.
  • Joint advocacy group-company press releases, e.g. Taco Bell, Sodexo, Dunkin Donuts, Marriott, BJ's Wholesale, Kraft Heinz, and Delhaize. I understand that these releases were the results of negotiations between the companies and advocacy groups.
  • A recent counterfactual in which, absent advocacy, a major company's cage-free pledge did not lead other companies to follow suit. Burger King's April 2012 cage-free pledge was overshadowed by McDonald's gestation crate pledge the following month, leading advocates to focus on crates over cages. In the next two years, no other major food company pledged to go cage-free. But once advocates re-focused on battery cages in late 2014, the recent spate of major corporate pledges began.

I drew these observations from a list I compiled (.xlsx) of all the corporate pledges to date by talking to advocates in the field, independently researching the pledges, and estimating the numbers involved.

Corporate cage-free campaigns are extremely cost-effective

Counting just the ~$2.5 million spent on corporate cage-free campaigning over the last few years, and conservatively assuming that the campaigns only accelerated pledges by five years, these campaigns will spare about 250 hens a year of cage confinement per dollar spent. And even if you add the $1.5 million disbursement for the first year of our three grants, and the ~$12.5 million (at most) spent both on Prop 2 in 2008 and all egg undercover investigations ever done in the U.S., these campaigns will still spare about 38 hens a year of cage confinement per dollar spent. Dollar figures are my estimates based on conversations with the groups involved. In my view, the assumption that these campaigns only accelerated pledges by five years is very conservative. It seems equally likely that these companies would never have dropped battery cages, or would have merely transitioned to “enriched” cages. For instance, as recently as March 2015, a coalition backed by McDonald's, General Mills, and other major food companies issued a report which largely endorsed “enriched” cages as an alternative to cage-free systems.

In my opinion, this makes for a stronger case than the case that I've seen for the cost-effectiveness of online ads and vegan leafletting. For example, Animal Charity Evaluators estimates that leafletting and online ads spare animals about 1.1 years and 7.2 years respectively of life in factory farms per dollar spent. Admittedly, cage-free campaigns only spare hens from being caged – not from factory farming entirely. But I think it's unlikely that sparing an animal from a year of factory farming entirely is 5X to 227X better than sparing an animal from a year of life in a cage.

And this is taking at face value ACE's figures, which I think are likely too generous to interventions focused on individual diet change. I haven't seen compelling evidence that these interventions work; I know of few examples of social movements achieving widespread changes in personal behavior as deeply ingrained as eating habits; and I believe that past evidence in favor of these interventions can be explained by social desirability bias. I think the best study so far on these interventions is the recent MFA online ad study, which did not find evidence that online ads reduce average animal product consumption (though the study may have merely been underpowered), and ACE has stated that it plans to substantially reduce its cost-effectiveness estimates for online ads based on this study.

The long-term significance of cage-free campaigns

So far, I've focused on the immediate suffering prevented by cage-free campaigns, which I think is sufficient to make the case for their cost-effectiveness. Some might have the mistaken impression, however, that the benefits of cage-free campaigns end here, and that cage-free campaigns represent a “short-term-only” approach compared to e.g. promoting veganism. By contrast, I see cage-free campaigns as a logical step along a long-term path toward greatly reduced farm animal suffering, and I think they're competitive with other approaches when thought of in these terms.

My hope is that after cage-free eggs become near-universal, campaigners – having built both experience and credibility – will continue to work toward reforms of increasing significance. Eventually, this may involve working toward pledges to achieve certification via programs such as Global Animal Partnership. If certifiers continue to grow their capacity, improve their auditing abilities, and raise their standards, there is little conceptual limit to how much animal welfare can improve. And improvements on this dimension would have secondary effects as well, such as raising the price of factory-farmed meat relative to plant-based alternatives as well as cultured meat.

My impression is that past social movements have often built support, legitimacy, and attention – and made huge strides over time – as they've focused on steady streams of incremental but tangible and achievable wins. I see corporate campaigning as a promising way for farm animal welfare advocates to take this sort of approach – more so than other approaches that aim for dramatic long-term change but have relatively few meaningful signposts along the way.

Impact of additional funding

The apparent cost-effectiveness of corporate cage-free campaigns raises the question of why they haven't received more support to date. Before our grants, advocacy groups were collectively devoting less than $1 million/year to battery cage campaigns, and fewer than seven advocates were working full time on the issue. I think that lack of attention had more to do with advocates' and donors' aversion to incremental work to improve farm conditions than to any rigorous assessment of the merits of cage-free campaigns. I think that our grants have filled the bulk of the current funding gap in U.S. cage-free campaigns, and hope that they will lead advocates to think more about what other promising incremental approaches might be neglected.

My biggest worry about these grants now is that they may have been superfluous: advocates have been so successful in securing cage-free pledges that they might have done so without our financial support. Now that eight of the top ten U.S. restaurant chains and seven of the top ten U.S. food retailers have pledged to go cage-free, the battery cage's demise in the U.S. looks likely. Certainly, I didn't anticipate the speed of this progress when we recommended the grants in late December.

But I think it would be a mistake to conclude that advocates didn't need additional financial support to achieve this progress. The recent cage-free wins were not self-actuating; they were the result of effective campaigns waged by THL, MFA, HSUS, and others. Although those groups were waging effective campaigns and winning major victories long before we supported them, our funding enabled them to scale up their campaigns to take on the grocers, which have historically been more obstinate than other food companies. Before we started talking with MFA about potentially supporting cage-free campaigns, MFA's work on the issue had consisted almost entirely of undercover investigations. But with our support, MFA launched a major campaign focused on Safeway in January, which succeeded at the start of this month and was a major catalyst for the recent set of wins with grocers.

Our funding is also needed for the cage-free campaigns to come. For starters, advocates still need to get the remaining U.S. food companies – accounting for over 100 million caged birds – to make cage-free pledges. Further down the line they need to ensure that companies follow through on their pledges. And then they need to launch international cage-free campaigns, as MFA and THL are both planning to do with some of our funds. We're extremely excited by the rapid progress that THL, MFA, and HSUS have made in securing U.S. cage-free pledges and are looking forward to seeing how further work on eliminating battery cages progresses.