McDonald's says it will switch to cage-free eggs in the United States and Canada over the next decade, marking the latest push by a major restaurant chain in the U.S. to encourage better animal welfare practices in its supply chain.
Influenced by pressure to revive slumping sales, McDonald's has already announced a number of changes since CEO Steve Easterbrook stepped into his role earlier this year. In March, the fast-food giant said it would switch to chickens raised without most antibiotics. And in April, it said it would raise pay for workers at company-owned stores, which represent about 10 percent of its domestic locations.
The decision to switch to cage-free eggs, meanwhile, potentially signals a growing sensitivity among customers to animal welfare issues and follows moves in that direction by other restaurant chains. Chipotle, for example, has made animal welfare standards part of its marketing campaign in recent months. In January, the Mexican fast-food chain cut pork from its menu after suppliers weren’t able to meet its animal welfare requirements.
Animal welfare activists have long called for the banishment of battery cages, which confine hens to spaces so small they're barely able to move. The Humane Society of the United States has pressed McDonald's to switch to cage-free eggs at the company's annual shareholders meeting for the past decade, said Paul Shapiro, the group's vice president of farm and animal protection.
"It's a real watershed moment," Shapiro said of the decision by McDonald's. "It makes it clearer than ever that cages just do not have a future in the egg industry."
While cage-free doesn't mean cruelty-free or access to the outdoors, Shapiro said it's a substantial improvement from battery farming.
Regulatory changes could also be influencing companies' decisions to switch to suppliers with better standards. In California, a law now requires that egg-laying hens be given enough space to stretch, turn around and flap their wings.
Among the companies that have said they will switch to cage-free eggs are Subway and Starbucks, although neither of those chains has laid out a timeline for when they expect the transition to be complete.
Already, McDonald's says it buys about 13 million cage-free eggs a year in the U.S. But that is still less than 1 percent of the 2 billion eggs it uses annually to make menu items such as Egg McMuffins. Overall, only about 6 percent of the nation's egg-laying hens are cage-free, according to the United Egg Producers. Chad Gregory, CEO of the industry group, said he expects that figure to climb.
Marion Gross, senior vice president of the North American supply chain at McDonald's, said the company is working with its existing egg suppliers to convert housing systems for hens. Gross said she thinks the change will be "truly meaningful" to customers.
"They know how big we are, and the impact we can make on the industry," Gross said.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press