21 Brands Fail to Keep Cage-Free Promises

Wendy's and other national brands are failing to make good on their cage-free egg commitments.

companies failing cage-free commitments

Reported Food Industry

Almost two dozen major food retailers pledging to switch to cage-free eggs in their supply chains have failed to meet commitments or offer transparency regarding their progress, a new report released today from the animal advocacy group The Humane League warns.

In its new findings, the group calls out well-known restaurants and store chains including Wendy’s, WaWa and Einstein Bros. Bagels, as well as other corporations serving or selling food including Omni Hotels & Resorts, InterContinental Hotels Group and American Food & Vending. The 21 brands listed have been “unwilling to be publicly accountable to their self-imposed deadlines,” according to the report, which notes the disparity between commitment and action — “nearly all major food companies in the U.S. have committed to phasing battery cages out of their supply chains by 2025.”

Despite their past pledges, these companies are not keeping up with the requirements of their agreements, according to the advocacy group. “[I]t’s exceedingly unfair that companies should benefit from the positive [public relations] associated with making a promise and not actually follow through with it,” says Michael Windsor, Corporate Project Manager at The Humane League and a co-author of the group’s Eggsposé report. “And it’s just lying to customers, plain and simple.”

‘Wendy’s Has Failed to Keep Its Word’

Twenty-one companies are falling short on promises to transition to cage-free throughout their entire supply chains, the report finds. Perhaps the most high-profile of these is the restaurant chain Wendy’s, having announced in 2016 that its more than 400 U.S. and Canada locations serving breakfast at the time would use only cage-free eggs by 2020. 

While Wendy’s states that this goal was achieved at the end of 2020 as promised, the company began serving breakfast offerings throughout the U.S. that same year — a decision that upped the number of locations serving eggs to around 5,800 locations in all. This caused the chain’s total volume of eggs to increase “substantially,” and the company states it can’t source enough cage-free eggs to supply the new locations. According to the company, it currently sources only around 6 percent of its eggs from cage-free birds. 

Still, the Humane League’s Windsor points out that in 2016 Wendy’s declared its intention to go 100 percent cage-free in the U.S. and Canada with an announcement that garnered Wendy’s plenty of positive media attention. And the company’s pledge was clear, he adds. “It’s hard to read the company’s statements and press releases and interpret their intent in any other way,” he says.

Since then, “Wendy’s has been fighting tooth-and-nail to avoid transitioning their entire egg supply,” says Windsor, and its “inaction is leaving millions of hens trapped in cages.” He adds: “To every other company, and likely anyone else looking at Wendy’s from the outside, 100% means 100%. I don’t know of any other company that hasn’t extended its cage-free policy to new outlets or menu items. Wendy’s has failed to keep its word.”

In response to Sentient Media’s request for comment, a representative for Wendy’s referred us to the company website. On it, Wendy’s claims that it has been “working closely with the egg industry” to increase the volume of eggs it sources from suppliers that undergo third-party audits and that are issued third-party animal welfare certifications. In 2021, Wendy’s was sued by Food Animal Concerns Trust, which alleged that the company was misleading consumers while 95 percent of its eggs were produced by caged hens. The suit was resolved last year, when Wendy’s agreed to remove or amend the animal welfare statements it had made on its website. “Looking ahead, we expect our sourcing of eggs from cage-free systems to steadily increase over time,” writes the fast food chain.

Promises Broken

Other companies have also removed previously published policies, including WaWa, the report alleges. Sentient Media reached out to WaWa for a comment but received no response. “Rather than keeping their word to consumers, many companies have simply deleted any reference to their commitment, perhaps with the hope that consumers wouldn’t notice,” Windsor says. He points to past commitments revealed in an archived version of the Fogo de Chão website and a 2016 article quoting a then-representative from the parent company of Old Chicago.

The group has contacted “each of these and other companies many times over the past year” in hopes that the companies would clarify why policies have been removed, says Windsor. 

Still other restaurants are simply failing to report at all. On the Border restaurants and grocery chain Hy-Vee are among those that have not made any progress updates. Einstein Bros. Bagels reports having achieved, three years early, its goal to serve cage-free eggs in its egg sandwiches by 2020, but the group points out that the company will not report whether all eggs used as ingredients are sourced from uncaged birds.

U.S. States Go Cage-Free — But Challenges Remain

Multiple states have passed cage-free laws in the past five years. In April 2022, Arizona became the 10th U.S. state to ban the production and sale of eggs from caged chickens, for example. The new law is expected to take full effect by the end of 2024. Arizona’s move follows similar legislation passed by California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon, Rhode Island, Utah and Washington.

These legal changes have not gone unchallenged by the industry. In 2018, California voters demonstrated public support for cage-free living conditions, passing the state’s historic Proposition 12 — which banned the sale and import of foods produced using the confinement of animals in battery cages, veal crates or gestation crates — with 61 percent of the vote. 

Yet proponents of cage-free laws are now bracing for a possible reversal as the case is mulled over by the U.S. Supreme Court. Oral arguments were held in October of 2022, and a decision is expected at any time, though most of the high court’s rulings will likely be issued in June.

A Cage-Free Movement

It’s not just animal advocates who support cage-free regulations. In February 2022, the Associated Press reported that cage-free eggs are “becoming the norm” because “it’s what people want.” U.S. egg producers, according to the story, were “in the midst of a multi-billion dollar shift to cage-free eggs” that impacts millions of birds. 

“What we producers failed to realize early on was that the people funding all the animal rights activist groups, they were our customers,” Marcus Rust told the Associated Press at that time. “[A]t the end of the day, we have to listen to our customers,” added the CEO of the second-largest egg producer in the country, Rose Acre Farms.

Despite the public support, resistance to cage-free livestock production remains, including among companies listed by the Humane League. WaWa takes a stance that cage-free housing is not right for all hens and situations, writing that “many factors including the breed of hen and the approach the supplier takes to transition” from conventional to cage-free should be considered. 

The cage-free trend continues to persist, however. In 2019, the Humane League Labs published data it had compiled from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The group’s research arm found that 20.3 percent of commercial hens being raised for egg production were kept in cage-free housing as of June 2019, marking a 10.2 percent increase over three years. The total was 67 million uncaged hens, compared with 30 million in 2016. 

Little more than two years later, on December 1, 2021, there were more than 94 million cage-free egg hens, accounting for approximately 28 percent of the U.S. flock. 

In March 2022, Cal-Maine Foods — the nation’s largest egg producer — announced plans to invest around $82 million into efforts to expand its production of cage-free eggs, citing rising demand and “expanding state requirements.”

Globally, advocates remain hopeful that momentum towards cage-free production continues to build. Initiated by The Humane League, the Open Wing Alliance is a coalition of more than 90 organizations working to end the caging of hens. It reports that over 23,000 major food companies around the world have pledged to go cage-free, and predicts that because 2025 was the target set in most of these commitments, that year will see a massive cage-free shift in the egg industry as goals are met.

“We are already seeing an increase in companies that are reporting progress towards this goal,” writes the alliance. “This is essential for consumer awareness and public accountability on issues of animal welfare.”

Companies Must ‘Follow Up on a Promise They Made’

To Windsor, the companies in the Eggsposé can do right by their customers by offering similar transparency and up-to-date information. “Ideally, these companies will publicly report whether they’ve met their commitments,” he says. If a company’s 100 percent cage-free goal has yet to be met, the League wants it to reaffirm the goal and “set a realistic timeline” for its achievement while also pledging to update the public on the progress made each year.

A number of companies have “put in much more effort” than those cited in the Eggsposé, says Windsor, who names Arby’s, Shake Shack and Taco Bell among those food retailers reporting 100 percent cage-free supply chains in the U.S. Others, he notes, may not be fully cage-free yet, but are at least being open and transparent with the public. “Take Target or General Mills for example,” he suggests. “Both of those companies are just over halfway to cage-free, but they have created and publicly shared annual goals to bring them to their 2025 target, and they update the public on their progress to those goals every year. That’s the sort of transparency we are talking about.”

Windsor believes the push for transparency is a reasonable one. “[W]e aren’t asking them to instantly become cage-free overnight or anything, but just to follow up on a promise they made, and continue a dialogue they started with the public about their cage-free goals.”

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