Cage-free chickens aren’t necessarily carefree

Annie Baxter Sep 9, 2015

Cage-free chickens aren’t necessarily carefree

Annie Baxter Sep 9, 2015

McDonald’s announced a 10-year plan to get all the eggs it uses at its U.S. and Canadian restaurants from facilities with cage-free hens. That means the layer hens will have enough room to walk, perch and spread their wings — all activities that cages limit.

McDonald’s is one of the biggest buyers of eggs in the nation, cooking about 2 billion eggs a year. Other big food companies, including rival Burger King, have made similar moves to cage-free production.

The Humane Society of the United States applauds the changes, saying caged hens typically have only 67 square inches of space, about the size of an iPad.

The Humane Society says caged hens typically have space about the size of an iPad.

“You have some of these facilities that have tens of millions of animals on one property,” says Paul Shapiro, vice president of farm animal protection at the Humane Society. “They’re so overcrowded, crammed wing to wing and beak to beak, and stacked in cages from the floor to the ceiling. This is where the term ‘factory farm’ comes from.”

Shapiro says, by contrast, cage-free hens can move around in a barn from one level to the next. But the life of a cage-free bird isn’t exactly carefree. Shapiro says even cage-free birds may never go outside and are exposed to unnatural amounts of light to stimulate egg laying.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean they are living in bucolic conditions,” he says. “But it does mean that the birds have a better quality of life and suffer less than those in cages.”

It’s possible that at some point McDonald’s could have some small percentage of its egg production come from free-range hens, which would have access to the outdoors, says Marion Gross, chief supply chain officer of McDonald’s North America. But she says that’s not in the plan today, given the scale of McDonald’s egg needs.

“If we’re going to feed a growing population, you have to have infrastructure to be able to do that,” she says.

Meanwhile, she says, McDonald’s could forge improvements in cage-free systems.

“We believe we’re going to help move that along even further, because our volume and scale is so big,” she says. “We’re helping to change that industry.”

While animal activists were pleased by the announcement, some in the egg industry were not. The changes will come at a cost to farmers, according to Ken Klippen of the National Association of Egg Farmers, an industry trade group.

“When a farmer puts cages into his barns, he anticipates that he has at least a 20-year or more lifespan of those cages,” he says.

Klippen says none of his association’s members currently supply to McDonald’s. But as more companies demand cage-free eggs, he says the pressure will build for producers to switch systems.

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