Americans love their Egg McMuffins, which accounts for the two billion shell and liquid eggs the company uses annually (about 4 percent of the 43.56 billion eggs produced in the United States). This week, McDonalds announced that it begin a process that will ultimately lead to them using only cage free eggs, and will be phasing out using eggs produced by hens trapped in battery cages.
Currently less than 10 percent of the nation’s laying hens housed are “cage free” , so it could take McDonald’s up to 10 years to reach its goal of having 100 percent come from hens that are allowed to move freely inside barns.
The company is responding to consumer demand and public pressure for more “humanely” produced eggs. Meeting the price could be dicey as cage free eggs tend to be more expensive. In California, where egg producers were required to provide more space for their birds by the beginning of this year, agricultural economists estimated that prices for eggs would rise 10 to 40 percent. Egg producers there argue, however, that retailers add big markups to cage-free eggs that distort the actual increase in the cost of producing them.
That said, Marion Gross, senior vice president for supply chain management at McDonald’s, said the impact of its decision and similar moves by other major egg users would help bring down the price of cage-free eggs. “We believe over time that, with our scale, we will be able to mitigate cost impact on our system,” she said.
The United Egg Producers support McDonald’s move. “Recognizing that customers place value on having choices in the type of eggs they purchase, hens today are raised by our farmer members using a variety of housing and egg production practices,” Chad Gregory, the organization’s chief executive, said in a statement.
Given the leverage McDonald’s has, it could be influential in a market shift. Aware of how consumers feel about the way agricultural livestock and poultry should be raised have increased, the company is moving toward trends such as antibiotic-free chicken, grass-fed beef and cage-free eggs.
It should be noted that Burger King was one of the first major fast-food chains to pledge to use cage-free eggs, promising to have its supply chain converted by 2017, and companies like Unilever, General Mills and Sara Lee are working to use such eggs exclusively.
Animal welfare advocates have long lobbied McDonald’s to use cage-free eggs, arguing that because of its size, the company could have an enormous effect on the well-being of egg-laying hens, “McDonald’s announcement effectively ends any debate that there may have been over whether cages have a future in the industry,” said Paul Shapiro, vice president for farm animal protection at the Humane Society of the United States.
He said the move would affect about eight million laying hens.