I'm not the kind of person to normally give McDonald's praise. I haven't eaten fast food at a Mickey D's in years and don't have any plans to - especially since I discovered recently that beef is like the Achille's heel of our individual water footprints, with each kilo of beef using approximately 15,000 liters of water to produce.
So when a huge conglomerate like McDonald's makes a pledge for cage-free chickens in their supply chain, I'm skeptical. Couldn't they opt for free range chicken welfare? How 'bout organic feed for all those egg layers?
Yet while on the one hand McDonald's announcement that its eggs will come from 100% cage-free hens isn't enough to get me to order an Egg McMuffin, it is enough to give McDonald's some credit where due.
Because McDonald's is the largest egg buyer in the U.S., its pledge will improve life for the over eight million hens that produce 2 billion eggs for the the company's U.S. and Canadian operations each year.
Battery cages, which 9 out of 10 egg-laying hens are confined to in this country, are, according to Paul Shapiro of the Humane Society of the United States, one of the most 'notoriously cruel confinement devices' used on factory farms today.
Shapiro said that chickens in battery cages get less than a standard piece of letter paper's space to live on, and are so restricted in their movements that they can't do anything that laying hens like to do: like walk, perch, spread their wings, or be in private to lay eggs.
"This doesn't mean that the eight million birds that are laying eggs for McDonald's will now get to go outside - it's not suddenly like our idea of old McDonald's farm," Shapiro said. "What it does do is spare the hens a lifetime of misery."
McDonald's is giving itself an entire decade for its egg suppliers to comply with the cage-free directive, but Shapiro said he thinks the changeover will be much swifter. Herbruck, a major egg supplier to McDonald's, Shapiro said, is located in Michigan, where a law is already on the books forcing egg producers to go cage free by 2019.
Egg producers will likely switch to what is known as cage-free aviary systems, which are multi-tiered cages that give hens more freedom to engage in natural behaviors. It's not as if these aviary systems are like the great outdoors - hens are still closely crowded in big indoor barns, but they do have the freedom to move around up and down through the different levels of the aviary.
Shapiro said the Humane Society of the United States has been working with McDonald's to get them to go cage free, and that the organization had two other 'wish list' goals: the first was for Mickey D's to discontinue the use of gestation cages for pigs, which the fast food behemoth already pledged to do.
The last wish, according to Shapiro, is for McDonald's to finally add a good veggie burger to its menu.
Burger King was one of the first to pledge to go cage free with its eggs (which it will do in just two years) but the impact of McDonald's announcement is bigger as the Egg McMuffin is one of the company's most popular menu items. Shapiro said he expects many restaurants and food producers to now follow McDonald's lead.