From the editor: October 2015
By Kristy NuddsFeatures Business & Policy Consumer Issues Business/Policy Sustainability
McDonald’s announced its landmark decision to only serve cage-free eggs on its menu by 2025 in all of its North American restaurants. The announcement is of great significance to the North American poultry industry and has undoubtedly set the stage for the future of egg production for the foodservice sector.
Although McDonald’s has lagged behind many of its counterparts in making such a declaration, the corporation’s immense buying power — it purchases approximately 120 million eggs for its Canadian restaurants and two billion for its U.S. restaurants — likely means that more foodservice chains will follow.
Although not wholly unexpected, the decision is somewhat disappointing considering the corporation has placed an increased emphasis on sourcing sustainable ingredients for its restaurants.
The Coalition for a Sustainable Egg Supply (CSES), comprised of leading animal welfare scientists, academic institutions, non-government organizations, egg suppliers, and restaurant/foodservice and food retail companies (of which McDonald’s USA is a participant) in North America released the results of a three-year commercial scale research project on the pros and cons of layer housing systems earlier this year. In addition to cost of production and animal well-being, the CSES examined the effects of conventional cages, enriched cage/colony systems and aviary (free-run) systems on the environment, food safety and quality, food affordability and worker health and safety.
The research showed that each system had advantages and disadvantages in terms of sustainability. Although conventional housing had the best cost for consumers and producers, it was the worst in terms of animal well-being (ability to express natural behaviours). Enriched housing and cage-free systems fared much better on this score, with aviary being the frontrunner. However, aviary systems scored the lowest in terms of food affordability and worker health and safety. Injuries and bone breakages were also significantly higher in this type of system.
Despite the research, according to McDonald’s consumers want cage-free. John Betts, president and CEO of McDonald’s Restaurants of Canada Limited said in a press release that the company’s “decision to source 100 per cent Canadian cage-free eggs reinforces the focus we’re placing on our food and menu to meet our guests’ changing expectations, allowing them to feel even better about the food they enjoy at our restaurants.”
McDonald’s is wise to give a 10-year timeline for the transition. The U.S. in particular has been lagging on the transition from conventional housing to more welfare-friendly options, and securing two billion eggs per year from cage-free systems is going to take considerable time. Given that McDonald’s USA recently announced some of its markets will serve an all-day breakfast, the number of eggs needed is only going to increase.
Overall, the announcement should be regarded as a strong signal that consumer preferences outweigh scientific evidence. For years, the poultry industry has been saying that science-based evidence should be at the forefront of decision-making with respect to “hot button” consumer issues such as welfare and antibiotic use.
The fact that the announcement from McDonald’s was quickly followed by a flurry of activity by animal welfare groups heralding the decision (and some even taking responsibility for it), also says we are losing the public relations battle
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