It is difficult to overemphasize the significance of McDonald’s recent decision to embark on a 10-year transition to purchasing only eggs produced from cage-free hens in the U.S. and Canada. McDonald’s serves 2 billion eggs per year in the U.S., or around 6.25 eggs per person or 2.5 percent of total egg consumption. To put this in perspective, it wasn’t many years ago that McDonald’s egg use exceeded or at least equaled total cage-free egg production in the U.S.
I think McDonald’s announcement represents a tipping point for cage-free eggs in the U.S., just as Chick-fil-A’s announcement regarding sourcing only chicken meat from birds that were not treated with antibiotics was a tipping point in the broiler market. McDonald’s has been a trend setter when it comes to animal welfare, first establishing space requirements its suppliers’ hens in 2000.
McDonald’s was active in the Coalition for a Sustainable Egg Supply, which funded research comparing conventional cages, enriched colonies and aviaries for housing hens. The coalition studies were conducted by university scientists in field trials on a production farm in Iowa. The research compared the three housing systems for animal health and well-being, food safety and quality, environmental impact, worker health and safety, and food affordability.
I’ve read the coalition’s research results, and it appears to me that consumer research had more to do with McDonald’s decision than did the research conducted by the coalition. This should demonstrate to everyone involved in agriculture that being on the right side of science doesn’t matter if you lose the public relations battle.
I hope I am wrong about McDonald’s decision being a tipping point regarding cage-free egg production in the U.S. I think enriched colonies correct for the deficiencies of conventional cage housing while not incorporating the problems of cage-free operations. We will find out fairly soon whether other food service outlets are going to play follow the leader on the cage-free issue.