Thompson: How will activists move the goalpost on cage-free eggs in 2016?

It's hard to believe I have closed out my first full year on the job with the Alliance. There has certainly never been a dull moment! I am glad to have the opportunity to connect with you through this blog and share what trends and stories we are following and think are important for you to know about. As we turn our calendars to 2016 (or as our smartphones do that for us), I'd like to look into my crystal ball and offer up what I think our industry needs to be watching out for from the activist community in 2016.

Undoubtedly, one of the biggest trends in animal agriculture in 2015 was the move to cage-free, with prominent restaurant chains and food brands like McDonald's, Nestlé and Taco Bell announcing moves to source only cage-free eggs over the next five to ten years. Activist groups such as the Humane Society of the United States and The Humane League were quick to take credit for these announcements, claiming they come as the result of public pressure campaigns or private meetings. But I predict the "applause" from these groups won't last long.

HSUS staff members have already publicly stated that the change to cage-free production does not go far enough, as "most [hens] don't have outdoor access and the flocks are still too large." I believe the quiet negativity from activists about cage-free systems will get a lot louder in 2016 and the brands that have jumped on the cage-free bandwagon will find themselves as the targets of activist campaigns pushing for pasture-raised eggs.

This act of "moving the goalposts" isn't surprising, as it falls in line perfectly with the animal rights activist movement's strategy of "incremental changes." They know that leading with their end goal - ending meat consumption and therefore animal agriculture - is a hard sell. So, activist groups opt to push for things they believe will be seen as more reasonable, such as cage-free eggs. Once they get people (in this case, retail and restaurant brands) on board with that change, they move their demands back by another increment.

Every change is intended to make production less efficient and drive up costs, forcing shoppers to make tough choices about how to spend their grocery budgets. Facility changes, such as shifting to cage-free egg production, are also costly and time-consuming for farmers. Undoubtedly, some will not be able to afford it and will go out of business - the exact goal of the activist groups.

Restaurants and food retailers are gatekeepers to the consumer, making relationships among the supply channel essential. We need to ramp up our efforts to engage with this critical audience even further to help connect them with true experts in animal care and to shed light on the dangers of appeasing activist groups.

Animal agriculture will certainly have full plates in 2016 and beyond. Hopefully we will be able to continue to keep meat, milk and eggs on our consumers' plates and in their glasses - at a price they can afford.