According to a study by Promar International, a Washington, D.C.–based agricultural economic consulting firm, consumers would be forced to pay 25 percent more for eggs if animal rights activists succeed in getting only non-cage eggs sold in the U.S. That increase would cost consumers $2.6 billion more each year for eggs, a nutritional staple in the American diet.

Federal spending on food assistance programs for children and the needy also would increase by $169 million annually if the government could only purchase cage-free eggs, according to the study. Significant amounts of eggs are purchased for the school lunch and breakfast program ($47 million annually); Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children ($100 million); and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly the Food Stamp Program).

The study predicts that such a dramatic consumer cost increase could open the door to a sharp rise in egg imports from other countries that have far lower food safety and animal welfare standards than the U.S. Egg imports could rise from virtually zero today to 7 billion eggs annually, seriously straining the ability of the U.S. government’s food safety inspection system.

“Each egg imported into this country is a potential food safety risk,” says Gene Gregory, president of the United Egg Producers, a national cooperative of U.S. family egg farmers. “I don’t think American consumers really want to play Russian Roulette with every carton of eggs they buy, which is essentially what would happen if we allow special interest groups to force a ban on the most modern, sanitary egg housing systems in the world. Those systems are used to produce 95 percent of the eggs that American consumers buy every day.”