As McDonald's Signals Major Shift, A Reminder That 'Cage-Free' Does Not Equal 'Cruelty-Free'
Lauded as important development, major fast-food chain commits to sourcing only 'cage-free' eggs within ten years
By Jon Queally / commondreams.org

What does cage-free look like? Thousands of chickens roam a new cage-free henhouse at Willamette Egg Farms in Canby, Oregon.

(Photo: Ross William Hamilton/The Oregonian)

Animal welfare advocates on Wednesday are saying the McDonald's Corporation's recently announced plan to have a cage-free supply chain for its eggs within ten years is a "watershed moment" for the U.S. and Canadian food systems and a victory for those who have campaigned tirelessly against the fast-food behemoth whose business model historically rests on the industrial-scale abuse of chickens, cows, and other animals.

In a statement on its corporate website, McDonald's said it "will fully transition to cage-free eggs for its nearly 16,000 restaurants in the U.S. and Canada over the next 10 years" as a way to meet the changing expectations and preferences of its many millions of annual customers.

Acknowledging what animal rights campaigners and food system reform advocates have long believed, McDonald's USA President Mike Andres said that once consumers are given a better understanding of where their food comes from—including the cruelty animals experience within the nation's food system—they can become key drivers of changing farming and production practices. "Our customers are increasingly interested in knowing more about their food and where it comes from," Andres said. The decision, he added, is an attempt to "meet and exceed our customers’ expectations."

According to the company, McDonald's is one of the largest single purchasers in North America with its U.S. restaurants buying approximately two billion eggs each year and those located in Canada purchasing an additional 120 million eggs. 

Paul Shapiro, vice president of farm animal protection at the Humane Society, made it clear that "cage-free" in no way means "cruelty-free" when it comes to the egg-laying hens that will continue to supply McDonald's in the years to come—but said the development is a definitely an improvement. "The birds can walk, spread their wings, perch, lay their eggs in nest, and engage in other natural behaviors," Shapiro toldBuzzfeed.

As the animal welfare group Farm Sanctuary explains, just because a package of eggs reads "cage-free" does not not mean the hens are experiencing a humane existence:

  • Cage-free hens are subject to many of the cruelties inherent to battery cage systems. For instance, cage-free producers typically purchase hens from hatcheries, where male egg-type chickens are considered useless and killed at birth because they will not lay eggs and will not grow as large as chickens bred for meat. Hatcheries kill 260 million male chicks each year.
  • Just like caged hens, “cage-free” hens suffer de-beaking, in which a portion of the upper beak is amputated without pain relief. Also like caged hens, “cage-free” layers are kept only for a few years, until their productivity begins to decline. Then they are typically shipped to industrial slaughterhouses. Since poultry animals are excluded from the federal Humane Slaughter Act, packing plants are not required to render these animals unconscious before slaughter.
  • Though “cage-free” hens are not confined to battery cages, they may still be packed by the thousands into poorly ventilated, windowless warehouses. Undercover investigations have revealed “cage-free” hens commonly living indoors, packed so tightly that they can barely move or spread their wings.

Despite those realities, Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Human Society U.S., saidthe announcement of McDonald's transition "is a watershed moment in a decades-long effort to eliminate the cruelest confinement from our food supply." The move, added, "makes clear that egg productions' future is cage-free."

As Buzzfeed notes:

Roughly 3.2% of hens in the U.S., or about 9.6 million hens, were cage-free as of March, according to United Egg Producers, and an additional 3.2% were organic, which also has cage-free requirements.

In addition to "cage-free," there are other animal welfare standards for hens. According to the Humane Society, "free-range," "pasture raised," and "organic" labels on eggs mean the hens are granted outdoor access — unlike their "cage-free" counterparts — although their beaks may also be trimmed.

McDonald’s joins a growing list of companies that are switching to cage-free eggs. In 2012, Burger King committed to using 100% cage-free eggs and pork by 2017; Hellmann’s Mayonnaise maker Unilever set a goal for 2020; and the large food service companies Aramark, Sodexo, and Compass Group made cage-free commitments by 2019 or 2020 as well. This summer, General Mills also said it would stop buying eggs from caged hens in the U.S., although it did not provide a timeline.

Earlier this year, McDonald's announced it would use only antibiotic-free chicken by 2017 and serve hormone-free milk.

Leah Garces, who directs the U.S. chapter of Compassion in World Farming, said her group "wholeheartedly" commends McDonald’s for its announcement.

"This will positively affect the lives of over 7 million hens annually in the U.S. and Canada and the importance cannot be overstated," said Garces. "Nobody wants to see a hen locked up in a cage and McDonald's has recognized that today. We have no doubt their announcement will create a ripple effect in the entire market. This signals the end of the cage age for laying hens in the U.S."

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As McDonald's Signals Major Shift, A Reminder That 'Cage-Free' Does Not Equal 'Cruelty-Free'