With the egg industry still picking up the pieces following an avian flu outbreak that killed millions of chickens earlier this year, McDonald's is making big menu changes that might affect the way poultry farmers recover. On Wednesday, McDonald's announced plans to transition to cage-free eggs in its food, a process that is expected to take 10 years.
In July, McDonald's revealed a long-awaited plan to offer all-day breakfast in every single one of the company's 14,350 restaurants across the United States starting on October 6. Though customers welcomed the news, the timing of the move was questionable.
Offering all-day access to egg McMuffins or egg biscuits will require significantly more eggs, and the egg industry, a stalwart of American agriculture, is still reeling from a bird flu outbreak that killed more than 48 million chickens and turkeys in the first half of 2015. The cost of eggs skyrocketed as a result, with wholesale prices hitting a record $2.57 per dozen in June.
Dr. Hongwei Xin, director of the Egg Industry Center in Iowa, has said it could take "up to two years" for the industry to recover and get back to where it was before the outbreak. With eggs more expensive than ever, expanding the McDonald's menu could be a costly endeavor.
The Coalition for Sustainable Egg Production — a group made up of scientists, academics, poultry farmers, and representatives of food chains, including McDonald's — has weighed the pros and cons of caged and uncaged birds. It found that hens in cage-free aviaries produce fewer eggs and are susceptible to higher mortality rates, which is bad news for a company that is about to launch an all-day breakfast menu.
But the fast food industry is rapidly evolving, and McDonald's was wary of getting left behind. Consumers care more than ever about the origins of their food; McDonald's said in a press release that the decision to switch to free-range eggs was driven by the company's desire to "meet consumers' changing expectations and preferences." McDonald's made the switch 15 years ago in the UK. Burger King has also pledged to transition to cage-free eggs by 2017.
In 2008, California became the first, and remains the only, state to pass a law banning battery caged chickens. As of 2012, the entire European Union phased out battery cages. Dr Ken Anderson, poultry specialist at North Carolina State University, said he believes that animal welfare groups are largely driving the industry shift towards cage-free chicken farming. Anderson predicts that the shift to cage-free will drive the cost of eggs up even higher, "because you cannot keep as many birds in that square footage." The shift will also require poultry farmers to eventually remodel their facilities.
McDonald's spokesperson Becca Harry said that she does not know how the shift will affect the company's production costs, but emphasized that McDonald's does not expect it will have "any impact" on menu prices.
McDonald's currently uses around 4 percent of all the eggs produced in the United States each year, around 2 billion eggs total.
"If you look back in history" Anderson said, "whenever McDonald's has made major shifts in their policy as far as egg production or animal welfare, it has had an extensive impact on whichever industry the policy was targeting."
The company is such a big player in the food industry that its decisions have enormous repercussions — to the point that animal welfare advocates think the move could make caged hens obsolete.
"McDonald's announcement effectively ends any debate that there might have been over whether cages have a future in the industry," Paul Shapiro, the vice president for farm animal protection at the Humane Society of the United States, told the New York Times.
Whether or not the move by McDonald's away from cage-free eggs causes the industry to crack might not be fully made clear until 2025, when the company expects to complete its transition.