McDonald's Cage-Free Egg Move Doesn't Go Far Enough

September 11, 2015

The leading fast food chain is offering eggs all day and now pledging serve only cage-free eggs by 2025. It's a step, but is it enough?

Originally published on

The announcement that McDonald's will transition to cage-free eggs within 10 years follows on the heels of last week’s news that it will roll out an all-day breakfast menu. Marketing at its best. A one-two PR punch that may only be topped if tomorrow brings an announcement to use only ancient grains in their muffins.

It’s a move that McDonald’s is making to become more relevant to the younger generations who clearly want more transparency and sustainability in our food supply. 

The question is, can it?

Will all-day breakfast (which fits the budget of Millennials and Generation Z) and a more humane treatment be alluring enough to get them in the door? Probably not by themselves. The fast food giant needs to think more holistically about the food experience – where it’s served, how it’s served, where it comes from and of course how it tastes. Just using cage-free eggs in an Egg McMuffin, for example, really doesn’t change much about the sandwich. Maybe it's time to re-engineer the entire sandwich to use ancient grains, uncured Canadian bacon, cheddar cheese instead of pasteurized process American cheese and butter (instead of liquid margarine) if they are serious about attracting these new more food-focused customers.

We have seen Chipotle do a terrific marketing job positioning themselves as the most sustainable, caring-for-you fast casual restaurant under their Food With Integrity campaign. But it is actually Panera that has done more with its “Food as it should be” commitment, without recognition, which underscores that it is critical “how you sell it” versus what you actually do.

I have already discussed the importance of transparency in food production as it relates to food safety, trace-ability, sustainability and more. There is little doubt that “humane” will replace other consumer desires when shopping for animal products, adding yet another level to a transparent food system. According to a Technomic survey, well over half of respondents cited animal welfare as one of the most important social issues we face today. Context Marketing reports that 69 percent will “pay more” for ethically produced products. Clearly an issue consumers care deeply about and are willing to pay more for, and perhaps that is exactly what the Golden Arches are counting on to reverse its fortunes.

However, this move is on fragile ground. What is needed is a better understanding of labels like “cage free” and to put standard rating systems in place across the board to ensure humane products are not only easily identifiable but the ratings themselves are easily understood.

An interview with The Humane Society of the United States’ Matt Prescott helped me to better understand the current practices in humane food production regarding eggs. Cage-free is currently the standard, “happy medium” in egg production. The “gold standard” rating system is based on a Wageningen University study conducted in 2006. The study evaluated the welfare of poultry production systems for laying hens and reviewed 22 production systems that ranged from cage systems to barn, aviary, and organic systems. 

Each system was rated on 25 different points, creating a thorough zero through ten rating system. Results demonstrate that cage systems ranked the lowest at zero, while the 12-hen system scored a perfect 10. Cage free rated in the middle at 5.8. Free-range eggs rated at 6.1. A variety of retailers and food service eateries have made cage-free eggs standard. Just to note, starting this year 2015, all eggs sold in California by law must be cage-free.

So while the McDonald’s announcement may seem on the surface to many consumers as doing the right thing, the company should do more. It won’t be easy. McDonald’s purchases 2 billion eggs each year for its restaurants here in the U.S. - and that is before their all-day breakfast menu rolls out. A lot of eggs and a lot more expense to go cage-free, not to mention to do even more. On top of that, our laying hen supply is still grossly under numbered from the recent Bird Flu epidemic.

Here are the terms to become familiar with as we read the press releases, look at menus and buy eggs in the supermarket:

Cage Free (when used on eggs): Hens may not be in cages, but they are housed inside without outdoor access and may have very little space. Cage-free or free roaming: Over 90 percent of hens are raised in cages that are between 48 and 68 square inches. Birds that are cage-free or free roaming are not caged; however, they likely were still raised within the confines of a small building and generally do not have access to the outdoors. So this is a distinction without much of a difference.

Certified humane: For a farm to make this claim, it must meet specific criteria: The hens may not be caged; their feed must be vegetarian and contain no antibiotics; and the birds need to live in a natural environment that allows for behaviors like preening and scratching.

Fertile: These are eggs that, when incubated, will develop into chicks. They are no more nutritious than other eggs and are usually priced higher than others. Usually fertile eggs are cage-free and come from hen houses where roosters roam as well; some consumers believe this is a more natural habitat.

Grass-fed/Pastured: There is no USDA-approved definition of this term when it comes to hens. Farms touting grass-fed egg laying hens claim their hens are as close to being “wild” as possible. Grass-fed hens are usually allowed to roam freely so they eat a variety of things found in their natural habitat: grass, bugs, and whatever animals they might catch and kill. All of these (individually and together) contain adequate protein (Including vegetation). Because this term is not USDA regulated, if you are interested in purchasing grass-fed eggs it may be best to get to know your farmer and their farming practices.

Hormone free: The use of hormones in poultry has been banned since the 1960s. So by law, all eggs are hormone-free. If a carton offers this claim alone, it’s a waste of money if it costs more.

Natural: This is another meaningless term. According to regulations from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration, no additives or colors can ever be added to eggs.

USDA-certified organic: This means that the hens have eaten only organic feed and grain grown without fungicides, herbicides, commercial fertilizers, and pesticides and that their diet hasn’t contained any animal or poultry by-products. The hens also have not been given any antibiotics or growth hormones, and they’ve been allowed access to the outdoor.

There are also studies that demonstrated that free-range or pasture-raised chicken eggs have four to six times more vitamin D (one of the only natural sources), three times more vitamin E, two-thirds more vitamin A, one third less cholesterol, and seven times more beta carotene. They also have two times more omega-3 essential fatty acids, and some would say a better taste.

McDonald’s is making terrific steps forward to meet changing food, nutrition and sustainability issues; but for now, it’s baby steps and it’s time to start wearing the big boy shoes.