Published: March 2016
Mercy For Animals staff reviewed this page prior to publication.
The Open Philanthropy Project awarded a grant of $1 million over two years to Mercy For Animals to build its capacity to execute corporate cage-free egg campaigns.
Mercy For Animals is an animal advocacy organization that engages in a variety of activities, including campaigning for corporations to end the use of cages to confine egg-laying hens. We believe that corporate cage-free campaigns are a particularly effective method for reducing animal suffering, and that Mercy For Animals is well-positioned to campaign effectively for corporate cage-free reforms.
- Rationale for the grant
- Risks and reservations about this grant
- Plans for learning and follow-up
- Our process
Rationale for the grant
Farm animal welfare is one of our focus areas within U.S. Policy.
In our page about a similar grant made to The Humane League (THL), we wrote in greater depth about the benefits of cage-free systems and the track record of cage-free campaigns. In short, roughly 260 million hens are currently confined in battery cages in the U.S.1 Peter Singer has called these hens “the most closely confined, overcrowded and generally miserable animals in America.”2 We believe that corporate campaigns to abolish battery cages are the most cost-effective approach to improving the welfare of these hens. In addition to this grant and the grant to THL, we have also made a grant to the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) for its work on corporate cage-free reforms.
Mercy for Animals (MFA) is a farmed animal welfare group known for its undercover investigations, legal advocacy, online activism, corporate campaigns, and education programs.
We think MFA’s track record on corporate campaigns is very positive, particularly as it has significant experience with campaigns targeting grocers. MFA has led successful corporate campaigns to secure animal welfare pledges from corporations such as Nestle,3 Tyson,4 Walmart,5 Maple Leaf Foods,6 Safeway,7 and the Retail Council of Canada,8 which represents Canada’s eight largest grocery chains. Until recently, however, MFA’s corporate campaigns largely focused on animal welfare causes other than pushing for cage-free environments for egg-laying hens.
MFA will use this grant to build a corporate cage-free egg campaigning team. Now that advocates have gotten almost all major fast food and food service chains to go cage-free, MFA’s goal is to get the rest of the grocery industry to go cage-free as well.
Case for the grant
We believe corporate cage-free egg campaigns are a particularly cost-effective approach for reducing farm animal suffering (more on our estimates of cost-effectiveness on our page about our grant to THL).
Although MFA has not done much campaigning on battery cages to date, it seems well-positioned to campaign for corporate cage-free reforms, particularly given its past experience with campaigns in the grocery sector. In previous corporate campaigns for animal welfare improvements, MFA used the organization’s more than two million Facebook followers, 200,000+ member email list, celebrity contacts, network news connections, top investigations unit, and grassroots network to put pressure on corporations. We believe that MFA will likely be able to use similar tactics to get major grocers to commit to only stocking cage-free eggs.
We believe the most likely outcome for future corporate cage-free egg campaigns will be similar to the recently-concluded Costco campaign, which appears to have provided returns slightly worse than the estimate of 120 hens spared per dollar that we gave previously.9 Nevertheless, we believe it is possible that our grants in this area could attain superlinear returns (i.e. the campaigns they fund could be more cost-effective than past campaigns) if they enable the organizations to spur a cascade of cage-free pledges in the grocery sector. Even if returns are sublinear, we believe cage-free egg campaigns would still be relatively cost-effective; if, for example, our $1 million grant to MFA only generates one major grocer victory over two years, our median guess is that it would spare five million hens from battery cages per year, which would be 25 million hens spared over five years and thus 25 hens spared per dollar.
Room for more funding
Absent our funding, our understanding is that MFA would likely only hire one new corporate campaigner, due to a number of other high priorities. It is our understanding that the absence of funds designated for corporate campaign work makes it difficult for MFA to fund corporate cage-free egg campaigns internally with its current priorities. Although we would likely prioritize corporate cage-free campaigns more highly than MFA, we think this is a reasonable decision by MFA.
We initially considered making a grant of $500,000 over two years, for $250,000 per year. The larger grant of $1 million ($500,000 per year) that we settled on will allow MFA to hire three to four campaigners instead of two, in addition to having more funds for advertising, websites, video production, investigations, and other campaign support. In addition, MFA plans to expand its international outreach in Canada, Mexico, India, and potentially also Brazil, and it may hire a veterinarian or animal welfare scientist to join corporate negotiations. MFA has already secured several cage-free pledges in Canada, but sees much more potential in all these countries.
We believe this is likely to be an effective use of additional funding for the following reasons:
- MFA seems to have achieved its largest victories when it has concentrated significant resources on a single target; we think a larger grant size will give MFA more flexibility to focus resources in this way.
- Stepping up campaigns outside the U.S. could have positive spillover effects. For instance, after MFA helped convince the Retail Council of Canada to drop gestation crates in April 2013, a number of U.S. firms, including the nation’s largest sausage maker, followed suit.
Risks and reservations about this grant
Why is MFA not already focused on cage-free egg campaigns?
We were initially somewhat concerned that MFA did not view cage-free egg campaigns as a priority. Over the last year, MFA has prioritized other corporate campaigns, including broiler welfare campaigns, over cage-free campaigns, and just over a year ago ran a relatively negative blog post about cage-free conditions.
We are now less concerned about this. Nathan Runkle, MFA’s president, told us that MFA’s position on cage-free conditions for egg-laying hens is that they are significantly better than battery cage conditions (though they are not perfect), and that they are an important step in improving hen welfare.
MFA intends to continue working on broiler chicken welfare, but plans to make cage-free egg campaigns a priority, both because of our support and because MFA is impressed by the traction that advocates have gained on this issue. We think MFA’s actions reflect this stance; in the last few months it has secured cage-free egg commitments from Wendy’s, Tim Horton’s, and Cara Foods, and has launched a major campaign against Safeway.
Do cage-free systems actually reduce animal suffering?
Most animal advocates and welfare scientists agree that battery cages are very detrimental to hen welfare. We are aware of some advocates and egg producers who argue that cage-free systems are not significantly better.10
We do not place much weight on these arguments. From our page about our grant to THL:
The best systematic evaluation of egg-production systems of which we are aware set battery cages at 0 on a 0-to-10 scale of relative hen welfare; on this scale, all cage-free systems were rated at least a 5.8, mainly because they do provide hens with these three basic needs.11
Is our grant just subsidizing MFA’s other work?
In general, we want our grants to lead to more progress toward our goals than would have been achieved otherwise; we do not want to fund programs that would have been funded even without our support. This means that when we support a particular activity within a larger organization, we want to consider the possibility that our restricted funds are simply displacing organizational resources that would have been spent on the program without our grant.
Our best estimate from conversations with MFA staff is that about $100,000 would have been spent on cage-free egg campaigns without our grant, as MFA would likely have hired one corporate cage-free campaigner without our support. This means that up to $100,000 of our grant funds may be displacing funding that would otherwise have gone to cage-free campaigns, and in effect supporting other programs. We are not particularly concerned about this; we consider MFA’s other programs to be relatively high-impact as well, and we believe our funds may induce MFA to spend other resources on cage-free campaigns down the line that it otherwise would not have.
Will we be able to assess the impact of this grant?
As always, it is difficult to know what would happen if we did not make this grant. We are not sure which corporate campaigns would have happened without our grant, and we do not know when each company would have gone cage-free without any additional advocacy. As stated in our page about a similar grant to THL, however, we think there is fairly strong reason to believe that corporate campaigns have induced companies to pledge to go cage-free sooner than they otherwise would have.
What if the grant turns out to be ineffective?
In our page about a similar grant made to The Humane League (THL), we described two scenarios in which that grant might be rendered ineffective. We think these scenarios also apply to our grant to MFA:
- The U.S. food industry pledges to go completely cage-free before these grants take effect. For example, Costco’s recent pledge to go cage-free might help initiate a broader trend across the grocery sector. Similarly, the egg industry might conclude that the cage-free trend is inevitable and transition its production voluntarily. Major egg producers Rembrandt and Rose Acre Farms have both indicated that all new production capacity they build will be cage-free. Cage-free egg production is growing rapidly: the USDA estimates that as of September 2015, there were 23.6 million cage-free hens, up 37% from the previous year.12 One egg industry analyst predicts that the industry will install enough capacity for 19 million more cage-free hens in 2016.13
However, we believe the food industry is unlikely to go 100% cage-free without continued pressure from advocacy groups. The most recent survey of egg producers (accounting for a third of U.S. egg production) found that these producers plan to install new cage capacity for about 3 million caged hens, in addition to new cage-free capacity for 4 million hens.14 Since caged systems have a long use life, we see the fact that producers are still planning to build new cage capacity as an indication that these producers do not expect a complete cage-free transition in the near-term.
- The current trend toward a cage-free transition stops, despite the efforts of advocates. For example, if Walmart were to transition to “enriched cages” instead of cage-free systems, other food companies might view this as an opportunity to do the same. In such a scenario, THL’s cage-free campaigns might become significantly less effective, even with the additional capacity brought about by our grant.
However, this would be a major reversal of the current trend among both U.S. and European companies of moving away from enriched cages in favor of cage-free systems. In the case of such a reversal, we suspect that our grant would become more, not less, important to supporting THL’s work to overcome it.
Plans for learning and follow-up
We expect to have a conversation with MFA staff every 3-6 months for the next two years, with public notes if the conversation warrants it. At the one-year mark, we expect to provide an update on this grant, either by publishing public notes or by producing a brief write-up. Towards the end of the grant, we plan to attempt a more holistic and detailed evaluation of the grant’s performance.
We identified corporate cage-free egg reforms as a promising area for grantmaking within our farm animal welfare program. As MFA is one of the main organizations running corporate animal welfare campaigns, we contacted MFA to discuss the possibility of funding the organization for corporate cage-free campaigns.
- 1. American Egg Board, About the U.S. Egg Industry:
- “Table egg flock size on January 1, 2016, was 288 million layers.”
- “As of September 2015, the total U.S. Cage-Free Flock totaled 8.6 percent or 23.6 million hens.”
- 3. Strom 2014.
- 4. Schecter 2014.
- 5. Malcolm 2015.
- 6. Newswire 2015.
- 7. Winter 2012.
- 8. Pippus 2014.
According to information given to us by HSUS and THL, in the Costco campaign, the two organizations spent about $500,000 to generate a pledge that will benefit about 7.8 million hens per year, for about 39 million hens over five years. This amounts to approximately 78 hens spared from a year of battery cage confinement per dollar spent, which is less cost-effective than our best guess for the cost-effectiveness of campaigns to date.
- 10. See, for example, Francione 2015.
- 11. De Mol et al. 2006, Pg. 165
- 12. “The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that, in September 2015, the U.S. had 23.6 million hens housed cage free, a 37 percent increase from the agency’s September 2014 estimate.” O’Keefe 2015a.
- 13. “If all of the cage-free systems that are expected to be installed by the end of 2016 were fully stocked, the U.S. would have about 19 million more cage-free layers then it had in September 2015.” O’Keefe 2015a.
- 14. “In early returns from Egg Industry’s Top Egg Company Survey…egg producers with a combined total of around 100 million hens housed at the end of 2015 report they will add housing for nearly 4 million head of cage-free and 3 million head of cage-housed hens in 2016.” O’Keefe 2015b.