McDonald's says it will switch to cage-free eggs in the U.S. and Canada over the next decade, marking the latest push under chief executive Steve Easterbrook to try and reinvent the Big Mac maker as a "modern, progressive burger company."
Under pressure to revive slumping sales, McDonald's has already announced a number of changes since Easterbrook stepped into his role earlier this year. In March, the Oak Brook, Ill., company said it would switch to chickens raised without most antibiotics, though only in the U.S. And in April, it said it would raise pay for workers at company-owned stores, which represent about 10 per cent of its U.S. locations.
The decision to switch to cage-free eggs, meanwhile, signals a growing sensitivity among customers to animal welfare issues. That has been fuelled in part by places like Chipotle that have made animal welfare standards part of their marketing.
Animal welfare activists also have long called for the banishment of battery cages, which confine hens to spaces so small they're barely able to move.
The Canadian Federation of Humane Societies congratulated McDonald's on its decision on Wednesday.
"While this change only applies to the restaurant's North American supply chain, it will have a profound impact on the quality of life of thousands of laying hens in the United States and Canada," the CFHS said in a statement.
The organization said it is currently working with the National Farm Animal Care Council as Canada's egg suppliers develop a new code of practice for the care and handling of poultry, including laying hens.
For at least the past 10 years, the Humane Society of the United States has pressed McDonald's to switch to cage-free eggs at the company's annual shareholders meeting, said Paul Shapiro, the group's vice-president of farm and animal protection.
"It's a real watershed moment," Shapiro said of the decision. "It makes it clearer than ever that cages just do not have a future in the egg industry."
Regulatory changes could also be making it easier for companies to agree to change.
Among the companies that have said they will switch to cage-free eggs are Subway and Starbucks, although neither of those chains has laid out a timeline for when they expect the transition to be complete.
In Canada, McDonald's purchases 120 million eggs a year, representing about 3.2 million laying hens, according to food industry expert Sylvain Charlebois.
Its demand for cage-free eggs has the potential to significantly change the industry and also to push costs higher, he said.
"Cage-free birds require more labour and management time than cage-housed birds, and the capital cost per hen for cage-free housing is much greater," Charlebois said.
He said McDonald's was making an "audacious" decision that could change farming practices and introduce greater transparency to the raising of livestock.
Marion Gross, senior vice-president of the North American supply chain at McDonald's, said the company is working with its existing egg suppliers to convert housing systems for hens. Gross said she thinks the change will be "truly meaningful" to customers.
"They know how big we are, and the impact we can make on the industry," Gross said.
McDonald' is also likely to increase its egg purchasing over time; starting Oct. 6, the company plans to offer select breakfast items all day in the U.S.