WASHINGTON -- The Humane Society of the United States has launched an aggressive attack on Trader Joe's to pressure the retailer into banning conventionally produced eggs, following the example set by the Wild Oats, Whole Foods and Earth Fare natural food chains.
In a full-page Los Angeles Times ad, the group posted a photo of hens housed in conventional battery cages that read, "Trader Joe's sells eggs from caged hens, each confined in a space as small as this box -- a meager 67 square inches."
Volunteers from the organization staged small protests in Trader Joe's parking lots throughout California, handing out pamphlets and holding up banners with similar messages. E-mails solicited from the group's 9 million members overwhelmed Trader Joe's Web site, reportedly forcing the company to shut down its customer comments section temporarily.
"While we certainly respect and appreciate the value of cage-free eggs, many of our customers choose conventional eggs in order to get an attractive price on this everyday basic," said Dan Bane, Trader Joe's president and chief executive officer, in an open letter to customers posted on the company's Web site. "Therefore, we at Trader Joe's will not alter our selection -- or raise our prices -- based on the assumption of others about our customers' preferences."
Bane wrote that Trader Joe's offers customers a selection of cage-free eggs, which retail for 40% more than its conventional private-label brand, and noted that out of the 3 billion eggs sold in all U.S. channels each year, only 5% are cage-free. Trader Joe's currently sells almost twice as many conventional eggs as it does cage-free eggs.
A company spokeswoman declined SN's requests for further comment.
The higher costs appeared to present a sticking point for a retailer arguably better known for its low prices on upscale foods than for its selection of organic or animal-friendly products. Still, an official at HSUS accused the company of being disingenuous.
"Trader Joe's portrays an image that they're a very socially responsible store," said Paul Shapiro, manager of HSUS' Factory Farming Campaign. "They make a big deal out of not selling duck because they say it's inhumane, not using paper bags from old-growth forests and not using ingredients that contain [genetically modified organisms] in their store-brand products.
"With that image, [their customers] would never expect that they're selling factory-farm eggs," Shapiro said.
Trader Joe's may seem like an unusual target for criticism, given the past praise the company has received from animal rights groups and environmental organizations, including a 2003 "Best Animal Friendly Retailer" award from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
Yet the company has a history of responding to pressure on these types of issues, particularly if negative feedback comes from its own customers.
For example, after enduring a year of letter-writing campaigns and scattered parking lot protests led by Greenpeace in 2001, Trader Joe's decided to eliminate GMOs from its extensive line of private-label goods. The retailer cited an internal survey in which more than 90% of its shoppers said they didn't approve of GMOs.
Shapiro said HSUS does not currently have plans to target conventional supermarkets with protests, but the issue has gained unusual momentum in the natural food channel, with every major "supernatural" chain, dozens of universities and several smaller, independent chains agreeing within the past few months to adopt official policies banning the sale of conventionally raised eggs.
Earlier this month, United Egg Producers, a trade group representing the $5.3 billion U.S. egg industry, opted to change its "Animal Care Certified" seal for conventionally raised eggs, rather than remain embroiled in a lengthy Federal Trade Commission review over whether the label was misleading customers.
That review was initiated by a lawsuit filed by Compassion Over Killing, another animal rights group headed by Shapiro before his recent move to HSUS.
"It's definitely a trend," said Troy DeGroff, director of sales and marketing for Asheville, N.C.-based Earth Fare, which announced a cage-free policy in August, shortly after a discussion with HSUS.
Citing a recent report on avian bird flu on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart," DeGroff added, "when they're making jokes and showing images on TV of how chickens are raised, you know that people are talking about it on some level. Whether you come at it from the angle of an animal rights activist or from the angle of health concerns, people are beginning to question whether there's something wrong with those production methods."
UEP defends the conventional egg-producing standards, including the use of battery cages. "Through an independent scientific advisory committee, we have established guidelines for cage production systems that are endorsed by the Food Marketing Institute, the National Council of Chain Restaurants and the International Egg Commission," said Gene Gregory, the organization's senior vice president.
He reiterated Trader Joe's argument for consumer choice.
"At the retail level, eggs are clearly labeled as cage-free, organic or free-range," he said. "That identifies them as something produced in a different way [than conventional eggs]. We believe in consumer choice, and we don't believe that any consumer, or any retailer for that matter, should be forced to buy a product produced by any particular method."