Michigan alters timeline for new rules on housing for egg-laying hens — cage-free by start of 2025

April 15, 2020

Starting in 2025, all egg-laying hens in Michigan will be cage-free, the result of legislation signed into law late last year after negotiations among lawmakers, industry leaders and animal-rights groups.

“[It] synchronizes Michigan’s hen-housing law with state and national retail and restaurant commitments of only buying eggs from 100 percent cage-free farms by 2025,” says Sen. Kevin Daley, the sponsor of SB 174.

Under the law, retailers can only sell eggs from hens in a “cage-free housing system”; to qualify as cage-free, the housing must “provide enrichments that allow the hens to exhibit natural behaviors” — for example, scratch areas, perches, nest boxes and dust bathing areas.

Michigan is the first Midwestern state with a cage-free law, and now the largest egg-producing state that dictates hen housing. Outside the region, California, Massachusetts, Washington, Oregon and Rhode Island already have such laws. In October 2019, the North American Meat Institute filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of California’s voter-approved animal-confinement rules.

Without passage of SB 174, Michigan’s egg producers would have had to meet cage-free requirements this year, as the result of legislation passed 11 years ago in order to prevent a statewide ballot initiative on the subject. “Cage-free” does not mean hens have outdoor access. Rather, they are free to run around barns outfitted with platforms, tiers and nesting spaces.

Two years ago, measures (HB 6205 and SB 660) to move back the cage-free requirement from 2020 to 2025 passed the Legislature, but were vetoed by then-Gov. Rick Snyder, who, in part, objected to language in the bill touting the health benefits of an egg from a cage-free chicken versus a caged chicken. “Establishing housing and production standards for non-Michigan firms selling eggs in Michigan under the pretext that traditional housing for laying hens leads to increased exposures to unsafe pathogens is incorrect,” Snyder wrote in his veto message.

Extensive research has shown that there are positive and negative impacts and trade-offs associated with different hen housing systems. Meanwhile, consumer demand for eggs produced from enhanced-cage or cage-free hens has not materialized to support the higher cost for farmers. (For most producers, moving to cage-free operations requires the construction of new facilities.)

The compliance date in SB 174 was chosen because it aligns with the date that many restaurants and grocery chains have committed to for buying cage-free eggs. For example, McDonald’s, one of the world’s largest buyers of eggs, has committed to 100 percent cage-free sources by 2025. Target, ConAgra Foods, Nestlé, General Mills, Campbell Soup Co. and Kellogg’s have made similar pledges.

Nationwide, about 18 percent of all laying hens were in cage-free production in 2019; however, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data on egg sales, only 16 percent of eggs marketed are sold as cage-free. If all of the companies make good on their current commitments, 71 percent of all hens will need to be cage free in five years.

Approximately 56 percent of Michigan’s hens are in cage-free systems now. Michigan’s cage-free requirement was part of a larger bill that also addressed other issues in animal agriculture, including biosecurity, disease prevention, responses to disease outbreaks and livestock indemnity.

Two years ago, legislators in another Midwestern state took a different approach to hen-housing regulations. Iowa’s HF 2408, signed into law in 2018, requires grocers to sell conventional eggs if they offer cage-free or other specialty eggs and participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children.

Article written by Carolyn Orr, CSG Midwest staff liaison to the Midwestern Legislative Conference Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee.