An Urban's Rural View

A Cautionary Tale of the Uses of Science

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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Ever wonder how science figures into big food companies' product-ingredient decisions? Read Fortune magazine's article "Inside McDonald's Bold Decision to Go Cage Free" (…).

The world's biggest fast-food restaurant chain cooks up 2 billion eggs every year, so its commitment to using only cage-free eggs by 2025 (…) has huge implications for farmers. Magnifying those implications, the company's industry-leading cage-free announcement last year pressured competitors to make similar promises.

A few years ago, Fortune reports, McDonald's, its egg-acquisition manager Cargill and other member companies of the Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply commissioned a study by scientists at three universities and USDA's Agricultural Research Service. The study compared three alternatives: traditional cages (80 square inches of floor space per hen); enriched cages (116 square inches; and cage-free (144 square inches plus enhanced freedom to fly and roam).

The study confirmed that cage-free birds "did things hens like to do," like perching, nesting and bathing themselves in dust. But they had twice the fatality rate of caged and enriched birds; some got pecked to death by other hens. And they produced fewer eggs. Birds in enriched cages produced the most.

Animal activists, Fortune says, attacked the study for the same reason the companies found it valuable: It took into account more than animal welfare. It also looked at worker health, cost, efficiency, food affordability and safety, and environmental impact.

If McDonald's had based its decision on the study, it would have opted for enriched-cage rather than cage-free eggs. The key paragraph in the Fortune story explains why that didn't happen:

"In the end, science wasn't the deciding factor. The study intentionally excluded one component -- consumer sentiment -- and that turned out to be the most important of all. The phrase 'enriched cage' means nothing to the average person. So if McDonald's had shifted to that option, it wouldn't get any credit from consumers. 'Science was telling us enriched, but when talking with the consumer, they had no clue what enriched was,' says Hugh Labrecque, who runs the egg business that serves McDonald's at Cargill. Once that became clear, cage-free became the inevitable consensus."

Getting to 100% cage-free will be a challenge, even allowing until 2025 to complete the process. Fortune visited the Michigan egg farm of a McDonald's supplier, Greg Herbruck. He hasn't built a cage since 2005 but still has only reached 50% cage-free, and all of those eggs are going to other customers. To service McDonald's he will have to remodel 26 of his facilities and rebuild five.

Constructing cage-free henhouses costs two to three times more, Fortune quotes the United Egg Producers as saying. McDonald's says it will absorb some of the cost and won't raise prices to its customers, suggesting it will accept a smaller profit margin.

As hard as the transition will be, animal-welfare groups aren't satisfied. They want the industry to move to "pasture-based systems." As Fortune notes, "That makes egg producers wary, especially those who invested big in enriched systems only to find they will be irrelevant in a decade."

No one can doubt Fortune understands the ambiguities of the issue. At one point, the article even wonders whether cage-free serves animal welfare: "Is it more humane, for a bird to live in a cage or to experience liberty and die prematurely?"

But there's also no question Fortune applauds McDonald's decision to go cage-free, as well as its parallel decisions to serve only chicken meat from birds grown without the use of human antibiotics and to take the high-fructose corn syrup out of its buns.

Fortune ranked McDonald's Number 25 on its 2016 list of Companies That Have Changed the World (…). Explaining the ranking, Fortune said: "When McDonald's uses its scale for good, the ripple effect through the food chain is massive."

But by going to cage-free, is McDonald's really using its scale for "good?" Or is it simply conceding the customer is always right? In the magazine's own words, "If McDonald's had followed its own research, its fowl might well be looking at a future of continued confinement."

Urban Lehner can be reached at



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