See the happy chickens dance!

See the happy chickens dance!

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Dec. 15 - It’s a pretty common to see chickens wandering around in the yards of the family farms that surround the town where I live in southern Maine. That image was on my mind when I read the news that McDonald’s is going to only use eggs from chickens that are kept in cage-free living environments. I wondered if others reading the news would picture thousands, perhaps millions of chickens out of their cages doing their happy chicken dance! Free at last, free at last! Thank you, MickeyD! Free at last!

Or not.

First, the numbers: Over the next 10 years, McDonald’s plans to “fully transition” to cage-free eggs for its nearly 16,000 restaurants in the U.S. and Canada. That comes out to be about two billion eggs per year for its U.S. units and another 120 million eggs served on its breakfast menus in Canada. McDonald’s USA actually started cage-free egg program in 2011 with some 13 million cage-free eggs purchased annually since then.

McDonalds is not the only major company going cage-free. Earlier in 2015 Dunkin’ Donuts announced that by the end of 2015 at least 10% of all eggs used in its breakfast sandwiches in the U.S. were cage-free by the end of 2015. The move thought to be part of a larger effort that could be aiming at going 100% cage-free in all its 11,300 restaurants worldwide.

McDonald’s Chief Supply Chain Officer for North America, described the decision to go cage-free as “a bold move” and on the surface it does seem to be that. After all, it’s got to be harder to gather the eggs from chicken’s running around free than it is if they’re kept in cages.

Except for the fact that cage-free isn’t as free as that description suggests. It is important to note that the differences between caged and cage-free are real and significant. Caged hens are just that, caged in units with a floor space smaller than half a square foot, that do not permit them to turn around, spread their wings, or engage in any of their natural behavior. They never get to walk anywhere, inside the buildings where they are caged, and definitely not out-of-doors. They are there to lay eggs until they no longer can and then they are killed.

By way of contrast under most definitions (unfortunately there is no one single official government definition), cage-free hens are allowed to roam with the confines of a barn or whatever building in which they are kept although using that term usually mean the birds don’t get out outside. They do, however, get to dust bathe, nest and perch, often with several levels to choose from. In addition, the producers usually have a set of regulations for density, and perch and nesting boxes numbers. Still, the birds are typically packed into their buildings without any genuine elbowroom (not really sure if chickens have elbows), are still subject to having their beaks removed and other similar “de-chickenizing” experiences. 

Egg producers that are offering cage-free eggs usually position the term as a step forward without pretending that it is the be-all and end all for humane treatment. They leave it to the imaginations of the consumers to conjure up those images of flocks of hens doing the happy chicken dance we mentioned at the top of this piece. And many consumers are happy to do that conjuring, satisfied that they have acted humanely by purchasing eggs laid by cage-free chickens rather than the regular eggs from caged birds.

But will they be able to maintain that self-satisfied feeling in the future? The animal rights movement is not about to stop at simply getting hens out of their cages. Over the next few years the push will be on to get them outside and roaming free in pastures the way many consumers assume the cage-free hens do now.

Will enough consumers be moved to support that effort so that the egg industry will have to expand its current relatively small commitment to free range and pasture raised hens? Impossible to say for sure, but, based on the success of the efforts to date, hard to deny the possibility.

-- By Howard Waxman