McDonald’s is slowly transitioning to cage-free eggs, but that’s only a slightly better deal for the chickens.
McDonald’s made headlines recently by announcing it will transition to cage-free eggs by 2025. Hooray: You can feel better about eating that Egg McMuffin.
Or at least you can a decade from now. Less than 1 percent of the fast food giant’s eggs currently come from cage-free chickens.
Nonetheless, the Humane Society of the United States heralds the move as “a watershed moment for animal welfare.”
I have a hard time getting too excited over changes like this. To be sure, cage-free is better than caged. Laying hens in battery cages live a miserable existence, in which each bird is crammed into less than the space of a piece of paper. Cage-free hens can at least stretch their wings and move around.
But cage-free facilities are not what egg producer Frank Hilliker called “Chicken Disneyland.” Not at all.
Chickens are curious, social animals that love the outdoors. They love scratching and pecking for bugs and foraging for other tasty morsels like seeds and grasses. Watch any outdoor flock and you’ll see birds resting in the shade of a tree while others blissfully take dirt baths.
Dirt baths are a hygienic behavior that clean the birds’ feathers and eliminate parasites, but the chickens seem to really enjoy them as well.
Listen as you watch a flock of chickens and you’ll hear a wide variety of vocalizations. There’s one cluck that a mother hen uses to tell chicks she’s found them a treat, others that alert of a predator’s presence, and another to announce that a hen has laid an egg.
Backyard chicken owners are often amazed at how each individual hen has a unique personality. And the pecking order? That’s a real thing.
Which is a large part of why even cage-free facilities, where there’s still no space for natural exploring and socializing, aren’t Chicken Disneyland.
When chickens are stressed — as they are, for example, in overcrowded indoor laying facilities of both the caged and cage-free varieties — they peck one another. Sometimes to death.
The egg industry handles this by painfully removing the tips of each hen’s beak so that her pecks will be less lethal. Getting rid of the cages alone won’t put an end to “debeaking.”
I haven’t crunched the numbers on egg economics, but eggs are so cheap in the United States that I can’t imagine any farmer profitably raising hens outdoors in a true Chicken Disneyland while selling eggs wholesale at prices McDonald’s would pay.
Studies have shown that eggs from chickens raised in outdoor pastures are healthier than the typical eggs sold in the store, but McDonald’s track record shows it isn’t terribly concerned about the healthiness of its fare.
My personal solution has been to raise my own small flock of backyard chickens, or to buy eggs from others who do — finding eggs from chickens raised “on pasture” is key. But buying eggs at farms or at farmers’ markets isn’t a viable option for many Americans. And it certainly isn’t a likely choice for a company like McDonald’s.
So what should be done? There’s no easy solution in sight, save for cutting back on fast food. In the meantime, let’s not congratulate McDonald’s too much on a change to slightly less bad eggs that it promises to complete a decade from now.
OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It www.OtherWords.org.