In June, Costco made headlines for its stomach-turning treatment of egg-laying hens.

Bill Maher of "Real Time with Bill Maher," in an op-ed for The New York Times, responded by calling on Costco to "free its hens." So too did Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt. And they're right; it is time. Actually, it's overdue. Eight years ago, the food giant promised to go cage-free, but the negative publicity has been especially loud in the last several weeks. You would think Costco would be sprinting towards making its hens, and customers, happy. It's not.

"That Costco lets its suppliers lock chickens in cramped cages, despite having indicated nearly a decade ago that it would eliminate that practice, paints the company as one that simply can't be trusted when it comes to important social issues," says Matthew Prescott, 
senior food policy director for the Humane Society of the United States, which has been heated in its criticism of Costco's practices, including an undercover expose. "While so many other companies aggressively move away from cage confinement, Costco seems to have stuck its head and feet in the mud on this issue."

Last week, the animal-rights group launched a massive billboard that plays the video of mistreated hens in Times Square. Costco CEO Craig Jelinek says the company is being unfairly targeted, telling

"This has been going on for about two to three months. We probably are the largest seller of cage-free eggs in the United States. The society would like us to give them a timeline as to when we will be all cage-free and we are not prepared to do that," he said via e-mail.

Costco's decision may seem surprising, particularly now. Some of the world's largest food companies — Aramark, Sodexo and Compass Group — have committed to being 100 percent cage-free with clearly published deadliness. Whole Foods grocery chain hasn't sold eggs from caged hens in more than a decade. And the European Union banned the use of battery cages for egg-laying hens three years ago.

There's a host of other large food companies, including General Mills, Nestle SA, Starbucks Corp. and Subway that have announced the goal of going cage-free, but they haven't disclosed specific targets. These initial steps should be applauded. But, without clear benchmarks, it opens the possibility for these companies to enjoy the public trust without making good on their word.

Leah Garces, U.S. director for Compassion in World Farming, warns that, "When companies are vague, they are less likely to fulfill their commitment." She calls on them to be transparent and open with the public. This means making clear announcements, setting deadlines and annually disclosing where things stand.

Battery cages — the cheap, tiny, brutal pens for laying hens — remain the bedrock of the U.S. egg industry. Most laying hens (95 percent, or 250 million hens) in the U.S. are cooped in such confines. The resulting eggs line supermarket shelves, appear in restaurants, end up as ingredients in food and are exported. That means there aren't that many cage-free birds out there. According to the United Egg Producers website, as of March 2015, organic and cage-free egg production accounted for 6.4 percent of hens, or about 19.2 million birds. Of this, 3.2 percent are organic (about 9.6 million hens) and 3.2 percent are cage-free (about 9.6 million hens.)

The World Bank's International Finance Corp. says, "In the case of animal welfare, failure to keep pace with changing consumer expectations and market opportunities could put companies and their investors at a competitive disadvantage." In a 2014 poll by TIPP, the Christian Science Monitor's polling partner reported that "56 percent of Americans said they would pay more money to know their eggs came from hens raised with enough space to stretch their limbs." And the Food Marketing Institute found that "Shoppers want food retailers to prioritize animal welfare over environmentally sustainable practices."

"People have a choice of where they want to shop," says Garces. "Each company has to decide what's a risk and what's an advantage, and bad animal welfare is a risk and good animal welfare is an advantage."

Costco, and all food companies, may do well to heed this advice.

Robynne Boyd is a freelance writer who writes for and focuses on environmental and energy-related topics.

It's time to go cage-free
Eliminating battery cages can benefit both the chickens and the companies that use them.