The McDonald's restaurant chain yesterday launched a major effort to improve the way egg farmers care for their hens--a move that reflects rising scientific and public concern over how farm animals are treated.
McDonald's Corp. sent letters to the farmers who supply the company with 1.5 billion eggs yearly outlining strict new regulations for raising hens. The guidelines require 50 percent more space for each caged hen, ban the controversial practice of withholding food and water to increase egg production, and require a gradual phasing out of the "debeaking" that is common in the poultry industry.
The move--the first of its kind by any major U.S. food supplier--was prompted by a combination of factors, including pressure from animal rights activists and growing concern among government and academic scientists that current methods of caring for chickens may increase the risk for diseases that can be spread to humans. Analysts also called it a potentially profitable business move--to win credit for taking a step that might otherwise be required by the government.
The action is the most far-reaching step in a trend that began in Europe and has recently begun to spread to the United States toward improving living conditions for all farm animals, for both ethical and public health reasons.
While the European Union has already banned practices such as the "forced molting" of hens and has required a phasing out of all chicken caging by 2012, U.S. authorities have moved more slowly and have relied more on industry recommendations.
Recently, however, the United Egg Producers (UEP), which represents many of the nation's suppliers, was handed recommendations on chicken living conditions by its scientific advisory committee very similar to those adopted by McDonald's. In addition, the Department of Agriculture is evaluating the raising of chickens that supply eggs purchased for federal lunch and other food programs.
"There has been a definite spillover of concern about farm animals from Europe to here in recent years," said Joy Mench, a professor at the University of California at Davis, who is an animal well-being specialist on both the UEP advisory group and the McDonald's scientific committee that recommended the new guidelines.
"There is a concern about the crowding of animals and their inability to perform typical behaviors in their housing, and industry here is being forced to respond," she said. "McDonald's and the UEP are responding here, and I think others will be forced to address their animal welfare issues in the future."
Many supermarket shoppers already have the option of buying organic and "free-range" eggs that are produced without cages, forced molting or debeaking. Those premium eggs make up a small portion of the egg market--industry sources estimate it at 2 percent to 3 percent of the 239 billion eggs produced yearly--but this segment is growing and commands considerably higher prices.
The new McDonald's guidelines will not be as strict as those governing the premium eggs, advocates for farm animal protections say, but they will significantly expand the number of eggs produced with humane issues in mind. As a result, some of the company's harshest critics in the past welcomed the new guidelines yesterday.
"We are very appreciative of what the company has done, and think they are doing the right thing," said Steven Gross, who has served as a negotiator for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) in its two-year discussions with McDonald's. "Other companies in this field have been dragging their feet and, frankly, we think this decision will have the salutary effect of waking them up."
"These issues about how food animals are raised are here to stay," said Gross, whose group is supporting legislation in Illinois to ban hen cages entirely.
While the new guidelines do call for a significant increase in the size of chicken cages, the cages will remain very tight for the birds--providing 72 square inches per bird. That will allow the birds to all lie down at the same time, said Robert Langert, McDonald's community affairs director, and will give all of them access to food. But activists say they will still be unable to fully stretch their wings or perform many basic bird behaviors.
The practice of forced molting--which involves the withholding of food for five to 14 days--has been used by producers for decades to increase the egg-laying capacity of hens. But some scientists have concluded that the stress of forced molting can increase the levels of disease-causing salmonella, and animal rights activists have called it inhumane.
The beaks of many hens are removed because they will otherwise peck one another to death, industry officials say. The fact that they are packed so tightly into cages and that the hens have been bred to increase their aggressive qualities lead to the potentially lethal pecking. While the McDonald's guidelines call for a phasing out of "debeaking," they acknowledge that it may take some time.
All of the new guidelines will be enforced though an inspection process that the company also uses with its meat producers, according to Langert. McDonald's does not own any of its suppliers, he said.
Producers have voiced concern that changes like those sought by McDonald's will raise prices significantly. McDonald's officials would not comment on the possible cost of the new guidelines, but one egg supplier said they will probably add about 2 cents per egg. According to Robert Krouse of Midwest Poultry Services, the decrease in the number of birds per cage will be the most costly change.
While both McDonald's and animal rights advocates spoke yesterday of the health and ethical issues involved in the new guidelines, financial analyst Bruce J. Raabe, who covers McDonald's for Collins & Co. in San Francisco, saw other motivations.
"Big companies are increasingly being held responsible for the practices of their subcontractors--like Nike and other sneaker makers with plants they don't even run in Third World countries," Raabe said. "This should be seen as part of the same phenomenon--of companies trying to get out ahead of a potential problem and turning their own reaction into a potential asset."