How fast-food chains are pressuring big agriculture on animal rights

It’s easy to dismiss announcements about “cage-free” eggs as mere marketing stunts, but it will change supply chains for the better

Chickens in battery cages with eggs in the foreground

(David Silverman/Getty)

It’s not all that surprising that restaurants that focus on fast, cheap food look to suppliers who focus on fast, cheap production methods. Fast food chains and factory farms, in other words, seem like a match made in heaven. But from the point of view of animals, it’s a match made in hell. The fast food industry’s capacity to efficiently turn ingredients into meals implies a huge demand for the products of the cruelty-prone meat and dairy industries. You don’t have to be a zealous animal rights activist to cringe every time you see images of battery hens, and imagine what a life—even with the very basic mental life of a chicken—would be like in a tiny, crowded cage.

But there are signs that things are changing in this regard. See, for example, the recent announcement by Burger King, along with iconic Canadian coffee chain Tim Hortons, (both of which are owned by the same parent company) promising to use only cage-free eggs by 2025.

Just how big a deal is such an announcement?

It’s easy to be cynical about a target that’s nearly a decade out. Given that the average tenure of a CEO is far less than that, it risks looking like a leadership team making a promise that someone else is going to have to keep. The key question, of course: Is there a plan in place? Is substantive action underway already? If so, then this is long-term planning, rather than punting.

There are also big questions about supply chains. A big restaurant chain can’t simply decide to change what it sells if it can’t find a source. So the announcement of the restaurant chains’ intentions implies a need for big changes within the egg industry. And, perhaps not surprisingly (given the purchasing power of the two chains) there are signs that the industry is listening: witness the recent announcement that Canadian egg farmers aim to abandon battery cages by 2036.

Finally, it also should be noted that this move sets a powerful precedent for other restaurants. A pair of restaurant chains, even popular ones, can’t change the practices of the egg industry on their own, and hence can’t make a meaningful dent in the total quantity of cruelty in the industry. But the move by these two (although not the first) could have knock-on effects in several ways.

First, it helps establish a supply chain (see above). Second, it signals to consumers that cruelty-free eggs can be had, even at a fast-food joint, and so it’s OK to expect that from a fast-food joint. Finally, it gives implicit permission to managers at other fast-food chains to live according to their own values. No one prefers eggs from unhappy chickens, but many managers may feel that competitive pressures won’t allow the alternative. Burger King and Tim Hortons have essentially signalled that they see a path to that alternative, and are willing to follow their conscience to it.

Could this all be a marketing ploy? Of course it could. But in the end, that may not matter. As long as BK and Tim’s see good reason to move to cage-free eggs, they will do it, and there’s good reason to believe that other restaurant chains will follow.


Get our daily briefing on innovation, leadership, technology & the economy.
Weekdays at 6 AM ET. Learn More »

2 comments on “How fast-food chains are pressuring big agriculture on animal rights

  1. Nine to ten years out is hardly a “commitment” of any substance. Now IF they could attach a PROFIT INCREASE to doing this, say, in 2 years, you can bet-your-arse it would be done. Nine or ten OUT is just words meant to shut up angry and upset consumers who are animal activists, which I am proud to say is myself. This is more bullshit than anything else.

  2. Egg Farmers of Canada’s announcement that they’re going to phase out battery cages by 2036 is simply a too-little too-late reaction to the reality of the current market. Most large companies have cage-free targets that are much earlier (in most cases, more than a decade). EFC is also behind the eight-ball in proclaiming that many farmers will move to ‘enriched’ caging, which offers no significant improvements for hen welfare. In fact, there is only one company, A&W Canada, who is sourcing from producers using ‘enriched’ caging and they are bound to stand out, and not in a good way, from all the other more progressive companies going cage-free.