Six months after making a major announcement on antibiotics in chicken, the world’s largest food retailer weighed in on hen housing. Over the next decade, McDonald’s will phase out the use of eggs from hens housed in conventional cages.
@McDonalds (3 million Twitter followers) tweeted out the announcement early Wednesday. In an article at Forbes.com, food industry analyst Phil Lempert called it, “a move to become more relevant to the younger generations who clearly want more transparency and sustainability in our food supply.” An article at Mashable.com informed readers that “cage-free is not the same as free-range, which is not the same as pasture-raised” and linked to a Wall Street Journal article from last spring that provides a detailed breakdown of different hen housing systems.
Princeton University Bioethics Professor Peter Singer (@PeterSinger has 56,000 Twitter followers) tweeted that the announcement was the culmination of a 40-year struggle.
McDonald’s is a member of the Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply (CSES), a group comprised of animal welfare scientists, academic institutions, non-governmental organizations, egg suppliers, and restaurant/foodservice and food retail companies. The group released results of a study on different hen housing systems earlier this year and concluded there are positive and negative impacts and trade-offs associated with each.
For example, the research shows cage-free aviary housing (compared to conventional cage and enriched colony systems) provided hens with the most freedom of movement and opportunity to perform natural behaviors, and was also associated with some hen health benefits. But cage-free birds also were more prone to die prematurely, their eggs were the most expensive to produce and the system had the worst air quality for hen house workers, the greatest dust emissions, the highest carbon footprint, and the greatest potential for egg contamination that could lead to food safety issues.
The situation begs the question, “Did McDonald’s disregard the science in deciding to go cage-free?”
Scientists who collaborated on the study say the goal of the effort was not to identify the best system, but rather to help food companies make decisions about hen housing that are best aligned with their values and the values of their customers. Retailers like McDonald’s want to provide customers what they want regardless of scientific consideration.
As the United Egg Producers, another CSES member, puts it, “UEP supports consumer choice, and we support McDonald’s in this decision.”
Consumers are looking for a variety of food choices in the marketplace based on several factors. Animal welfare issues are most important to some while cost is a prime consideration for others. That’s why consumers have a variety of choices in the marketplace. Regardless of the housing system, consumers should feel confident that eggs are safe and that the hens that produce them are treated humanely.