Time may be running out for companies to capitalize on the feel-good PR surrounding better conditions for laying hens.
They say birds of a feather flock together, and when it comes to the move toward cage-free eggs, more companies are flocking. Better late than never.
Jumping on the bandwagon this week we have breakfast stalwart Denny’s, second-tier Tex-Mex chain Taco John’s, and retail behemoth Target. While consumers might not have expected the first two to be at the vanguard of promoting animal welfare, it may surprise some loyal fans of Target that the chain that likes to brand itself as the more “with it” alternative to Walmart has only now committed to switching to 100 percent cage-free eggs. Meanwhile, Walmart’s private label Great Value eggs have been cage-free since at least 2010.
The announcements by the three companies have each promising to go entirely cage-free in the sourcing of its eggs by 2025 or 2026. Does that sound familiar? Surely it’s no coincidence that McDonald’s set the same goal for itself last September, in an announcement that perhaps single-handedly marked the tipping point in the battle over more humane treatment for the country’s more than 270 million egg-laying hens.
Indeed, it would seem the window for generating feel-good PR is swiftly closing for those laggards still out there that haven’t made a commitment to switching over entirely to cage-free eggs. If McDonald’s can do it—and General Mills…and Subway…and Starbucks…and Panera…and institutional food-service giants Aramark and Sodexo—then what on earth is stopping the rest of the restaurant and retail industries?
True, some chains have been able to make a splash by setting more aggressive deadlines. Earlier this month, Wendy’s announced that its switch to cage-free eggs would be complete by 2020—five years earlier than rival McDonald’s. Taco Bell has proved more eager still: It’s set to go cage-free by the end of this year. But in the fast-food cage-free scramble, Burger King probably deserves the most kudos: Way back in 2012, the chain announced all its eggs would be cage-free by 2017.
Taken together, the rising number of commitments from corporations to go cage-free is poised to substantially transform the egg industry in the United States over the next decade. Less than 9 percent of egg-laying hens in the country live cage-free, according to the American Egg Board. The vast majority of the rest—some 250 million hens—are typically confined to battery cages, where they are forced to spend their sad lives confined to an area that is, on average, smaller than a single sheet of letter-size paper.
But even as animal welfare groups are hailing the apparent tidal shift toward cage-free eggs, they have been careful to caution consumers that “cage-free” doesn’t necessarily mean “cruelty-free.” The Humane Society of the United States, which has consulted with a number of major brands on making the cage-free switch, has a short, handy guide for consumers who are searching for the most humanely produced eggs on the market today.
(Article by: Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.)