Recognizing this, last month the folks at Burger King committed themselves to switching over within the next five years to using only eggs laid by cage-free chickens. As defined by Burger King, the companies from which it will be buying eggs in the future must ensure that their hens have "room to roam," places to perch, and nesting boxes in which to lay their eggs.
The restaurateur, which purchases and resells hundreds of millions of eggs every year, says that 9% of its eggs are already "cage-free," and now it's going in whole-hog for the concept -- the first major fast-food restaurant chain to do so.
Applauding the decision, the U.S. Humane Society opined: "For every cage-free egg ... that Burger King sells, animals have been spared lifelong confinement in a cage so small they can barely even move." And Burger King is only just the beginning.
Do the Right Thing ... and Profit
Encouraged by research showing that consumers are willing to pay a little more to be able to eat with a clean conscience, Walmart (WMT) and Costco (COST) have both committed to selling only cage-free eggs under their private-label brands. Unilever (UL), which owns the Hellmann's mayonnaise brand, is also switching to cage-free sourcing for the 350 million eggs it processes for use in its food products every year.
If consumers truly are willing to fork over that extra profit, it shouldn't take long for corporate egg producers to get with the program and begin delivering the kinds of eggs that Burger King, Walmart, and individual egg-eating Americans demand. It probably won't hurt that the largest company in the industry -- Cal-Maine Foods (CALM), the biggest by a factor of two -- is a publicly traded company, and so especially susceptible to shareholder agitation.
Do the Right Thing... or Else
If, however, pure, unfettered capitalist lust for profit can't win chickens their freedom, then perhaps a few stern words from Uncle Sam might do the trick.
Inspired by California's 2008 cage-free "Proposition 2" law, the U.S. Congress is working on a bill to increase cage sizes for egg-laying hens.
The bill has the support of both the USHS and egg-industry advocacy group United Egg Producers. It's an improbable alliance, forged by the necessity of compromising on the results each would really prefer -- cage-free for USHS, and... "30 days in the hole," one assumes, for UEP. The result would be a bill that, while not winning hens full parole, at least would increase the amount of elbow room in their cages.
Perhaps best of all, the law working its way through Congress would mandate new, clearer labeling on egg cartons at your grocer. Within one year of passage, eggs would have to be clearly marked as coming from:
- Caged hens
- Hens housed in "enriched systems" (i.e., bigger cages)
- Cage-free hens
- Free-range hens