McDonald’s move to go cage free could signal the end of factory egg farms

McDonald’s decision to go “cage free” by 2025 may revolutionize the chicken farming industry.

In the $9 billion egg market, 96 percent of egg-laying hens still live in wire cages for most of their lives. But that will likely change as farmers scramble to keep pace with the changing needs of major egg buyers, reports the Los Angeles Times.

"The McDonald's announcement really settles the debate as to whether there will be a future for cage confinement in the egg industry — the answer is no, there won't be," Paul Shapiro, vice president of farm animal protection for the Humane Society of the U.S., told the LA Times. "How quickly that will happen is now the real question."

In addition to McDonald’s (which buys 2 billion eggs each year), other big names in the breakfast sandwich business including Burger King, Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks have also made pledges to go cage-free. In the near future, a majority of egg producers may have a difficult time finding a buyer for what they’re selling.

In 2008, California passed a law that requires farmers to provide more space for egg-laying hens. Washington, Oregon, Arizona, Michigan and Ohio have since followed suit with their own measures to regulate hen housing.

And many egg farmers have started to adapt their facilities to meet modern standards.

Arizona-based egg producer Glenn Hickman used to house his chickens in stacked wire cages—known in the industry as battery cages—that provided each chicken with less than 11 square inches of space to move around. By December of this year, 4 million of his estimated 10 million laying hens will be living in “spacious enriched enclosures” that contain perches, scratching posts and private areas to lay eggs. He says 200,000 in his flock are already raised in organic, fully cage-free facilities.

"When it comes to harvesting an egg, whether the chicken can fly up or down or scratch or perch really doesn't upset the production of the egg," Hickman told the LA Times. "As long as we can convince the consumer that those things cost a little bit extra but they're worth it — and we can sell the eggs for a profit — we're happy to do so."

While animal activists are celebrating fast food companies’ move to cage free, others in the industry have questioned whether this move will actually benefit farmers-- or the majority of consumers.

National Association of Egg Farmers' President Ken Klippen penned an open letter to McDonald’s after its Sept. 9 announcement, accusing the chain of bowing to "a small group of consumers, who are sort of the animal activists."

You may congratulate yourselves on this new policy, and animal activists will mark their score cards as accomplishing another defeat for egg farmers," he wrote. "The egg farmers themselves are wondering why anyone would want to revert to the former ways of producing eggs that was more stressful for the chicken and may compromise the quality and food safety of the eggs for their consumers."

Klippen argued that not only will the announcement hurt farmers who often have to shell out money they don’t have, or take out big loans, to rebuild facilities to organic standards but added that cage-free operations may lead to unsanitary conditions since more chicken manure can come into direct contact with eggs in an open environment.

Customers across the country already experienced dramatic egg price increases this year, largely attributed to a devastating avian influenza that wiped out millions of birds. Egg industry insiders now warn that the cage-free craze will lead to major sticker shock, with no going back.

"I agree. This is a tipping point," Klippen said. "The egg farmers do want to respond to this because there is a segment of us that disagree with the merits behind that decision."