Image: 95% of laying hens in the U.S. are still confined to cages. Compassionate Action for Animals/CAFO Book Project
Perhaps in response to the runaway success of Chipotle and its Food With Integrity manifesto, the fast food industry is starting to respond to consumer concerns about humane farm animal welfare. Writing in fast food industry magazine QSR, Matthew Prescott from The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS)helps the industry understand the issue and the opportunity.
Starting in 2007, Burger King, Carl's Jr., and Hardee's have helped pave the way for better treatment of farm animals by incorporating cage-free eggs into their products.
Now that trend has become even stronger. Unilever, one of the world's largest food companies and maker of iconic brands like Hellmann's mayonnaise, recently stated that it will use exclusively cage-free eggs for all products in all countries. Wal-Mart and Costco announced that their private brand eggs are 100 percent cage free. Subway recently announced that it began the process of switching to 100 percent cage-free eggs. And other restaurant chains have also begun using cage-free eggs, including Wendy's, Denny's, Golden Corral, Cracker Barrel, Whataburger, Sonic, and Ruby Tuesday.
Always on the lookout for a greenwash I was skeptical about the impact of a mainstream embrace of cage-free eggs. Does the move from a cage-free existence on to an overcrowded barn floor really improve the lives of laying hens? In a follow-up with TreeHugger Prescott lays out the perspective of HSUS.
When we are figuring out which issues we want to work on and how we want to work on them we run a sort of metric that involves looking at the number of animals involved in any given system of agriculture, the duration of their suffering and the intensity of their suffering.
There 280 million of them [caged laying hens] living virtually immobilized for their entire lives which is longer than a year. So getting those birds out of cages becomes an imperative for us. Certainly cage free isn't chicken utopia, but it is a huge improvement. There was a study done in Netherlands that ranked all 22 different methods of keeping hens, that would be possible in any kind of commercial production system and it ranked them on a scale from zero to ten. Cages ranked 0.0 where as typical base level cage-free ranked about a 5.9.
In order to convince more of the fast food industry that reads QSR magazine to follow in the footsteps of the few front runners in animal welfare Prescott references industry trends.
But just how prominent is animal welfare in the discussion over agricultural practices? A Technomic study found that animal welfare is the third most important social issue to restaurant patrons, outranking buying local and buying organic by a wide margin. An American Farm Bureau-funded study, meanwhile, found that 95 percent of people believe that farm animals ought to be treated well.
Food industry trends analyst Phil Lempert, "The Supermarket Guru," summed this up in his predictions for 2011 when he wrote: "Move over local. Move over organic. Humane is stepping in."
And since the bottom line is oft-quoted as a reason to not rock the boat and change the way things are done, Prescott is ready with some more data to support the minimal added cost of a cage-free operation.
There was a study conducted by the egg industry several years ago which found for an egg producer, if they wanted to convert from a caged facility to a cage free facility it should only cost them less than a penny per egg more. So less then a penny and egg for a producer to go cage free. What we found is that producers are charging more for the product because it's still relatively niche, but they don't need to. More and more people are buying this product and it's becoming more mainstream and so the prices are going down significantly.
It's tough to feel congratulatory to an industry that is just now responding to animal welfare concerns and only going so far as to look at changing the most abominable conditions for laying hens. But, as Prescott points out, it was only ten years ago that the fast-food industry even began talking about animal welfare in any significant way. Add that industry's commitment with the announcement from Costco and Walmart that they are going cage-free with their house brand eggs and there may be a critical mass to have all laying hens cage-free before the next decade is out.
More on Treatment of Farm Animals
Most Cage-Free Eggs Are Now From Producers Certified as Humane
What is "Humane Meat" Supposed to Achieve?
A Look Inside a Humane Slaughter House (Video)
Industrial Animal Factories in Shocking Photos