The maker of the Egg McMuffin is taking a stand, and it could drastically change the eggs Americans eat.
McDonald's announced this morning that it will begin working toward eliminating all eggs purchased from farms that cage their hens, in both the United States and Canada. The phaseout, which could take as long as 10 years, is in line with the company's recent shift toward cage-free eggs in the European Union and Australia. It also comes on the heels of McDonald's move away from chicken treated with antibiotics -- a move seen as important to human health.
"Our decision to source only cage-free eggs reinforces the focus we place on food quality and our menu to meet and exceed our customers’ expectations," Mike Andres, McDonald's USA President said in a statement.
McDonald's commitment to cage-free eggs, however, is more than simply a testament to the growing concern with questions of animal welfare among consumers. It's also a harbinger of standards-to-come in an industry that has historically sided with methods of production that prioritize low costs and high efficiency.
Cage-free eggs, though they might be increasingly important to customers, are still a rarity in commercially sold food. At present, more than 90 percent of egg-laying hens are still housed in cages in the United States, according to the Agriculture Department. But McDonald's, which uses more than two billion eggs per year in the United States alone, or almost 5 percent of all eggs produced in the country, is particularly well-suited to change that.
Partly that's because the company is simply too important a player in the egg industry for its decision not to reverberate. The company is the largest buyer of eggs in the country. What's more, it will likely only grow its influence in years to come. McDonald's recently announced that it will begin serving breakfast all-day long later this year, meaning that the wildly popular Egg McMuffins, which customers are only currently able to purchase before 10:30 a.m., will soon be available late into the night.
But McDonald's has also proven in the past that when it raises the bar, it's competitors follow suit. In 2012, after the company said that it would begin to eliminate the use of gestation stalls for pigs in its supply chain, dozens of other companies, including Dunkin' Donuts, Safeway, Costco and Oscar Mayer, did the same. In the aftermath of McDonald's recently announced plan to move toward antibiotic free chicken, a similar pressure has mounted. Subway has since said that it too would move toward chicken raised without antibiotics, and Wendy's is reportedly testing a roll-out of the same.
"When the biggest fast-food company in the world is saying no more cages, you have to play along," said Leah Garces, who is the USA director of Compassion in World Farming. "Everyone has been waiting for them to make a move."
"They've just set the pathway for the next 10 years," she added. "Not just for McDonald's, but for the entire industry. Cage-free will be the new baseline."
Paul Shapiro, who is the vice president for farm animal protection at the Humane Society of the United States, agrees. "McDonald’s announcement effectively ends any debate that there may have been over whether cages have a future in the industry," he told the New York Times this morning.
The announcement also benefits from what could be a particularly ripe moment for change in the egg industry. The avian flu, which first appeared in the United States last December, has ravaged egg farms around the country, forcing chicken farmers to kill off entire flocks. Some 50 million birds in all have been affected, according to the USDA. And all of them have had to be killed in order to mitigate the virus' impact.
As a result, some large producers, suddenly left without sizable portions of their flock, have taken the opportunity to shift, at least in part, to cage-free systems. McDonald's decision, which virtually guarantees a healthy demand going forward, means there will be even more incentive to switch over. What's more, the fast-food giant even believes that it alone can help drive 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," Marion Gross, who is the senior vice president for supply chain management at McDonald’s, told the Times.
A system for which the baseline is cage-free eggs would certainly be an improvement. But it hardly lends for the kind of pampered upbringing many consumers might imagine. Eggs sold with the moniker come from hens that are not required, for instance, to be allowed access to the outdoors.
"They're not in cages, so they have more space to move around, but the system isn't perfect," Garces said.
According to Garces, the move to cage-free eggs would eventually beget a subsequent move to free-range eggs, which come from hens raised indoors but allowed access to the outdoors. The final goal is pasture-range, which means the hens are kept outdoors but allowed access to some form of indoor shelter.
"The idea is to raise the baseline standard for the food industry, for companies like McDonald's that control so much of the food supply," said Garces. "Each of those rungs—cage-free, free-range, pasture-range—signifies a significant reduction in suffering of those animals. Eliminating cages is the first objective."