These days everyone seems to be on a quest to buy healthy food so once they see a label stating “free range” or “cage-free” chicken, there goes. These two terms are fairly new; it wasn’t always this way. In fact, only about a century ago the things were quite different.
Back in the 1920s, all chicken were both free-range and cage-free naturally, and the farmers were mostly small operations. The chicks were happily roaming around free and laying eggs everywhere. The egg industry was practically maintenance-free, save for the manual collection and cleaning of the eggs.
However said chicks weren’t always happy. Sometimes they would get sick and die. Other times, animals would attack them or the chicks would attack each other. Reminiscent of some modern events, but I digress. Back to the chicks. Their freedom backfired and something had to be done about this.
The solution came in the form of building hen houses, a prototype of today’s chicken coops such as this one:
In the 1950’s, the hen houses had evolved into the little cages made of chicken wire. This way the farmers could house more birds in a single hen house. Hens were protected from the dangers that came with roaming free, and mortality went down. The construction of caging systems has improved with time so that farmers could auto-manage the birds’ lives including automated egg collection. This process translated into wide availability and fairly low cost of eggs. In 2014, nearly 100 billion eggs were produced in the U.S.
At about the same time, consumers started getting concerned about their food origins — where it came from, how it was raised, and under what conditions. The egg production process came under criticism and the pressure for the cage-free birds began building, although the farmers weren’t at all happy to give up the conventional caged system.
The problem is, converting to the cage-free system requires more labor and costs more. It is also less efficient because it houses fewer birds compared to its caging counterpart. The automated egg collection is virtually impossible. In order to do cage-free properly, farmers have to reduce their flock numbers, which means a decrease in production and an increase in price. It seemed that the industry was about to revert to the 1950s or even 1920s, a before-cage era.