Too Short for a Blog Post, Too Long for a Tweet LI

Here's an excerpt from a magazine article I just read, "Inside McDonald’s Bold Decision to Go Cage Free," in the September 1 issue of Fortune Magazine:

You might think that raising hens without cages is an obvious improvement over keeping them in tiny cells—how could freedom be anything but good?—but the issue is considerably more complicated. Indeed, if McDonald’s had followed its own research, its fowl might well be looking at a future of continued confinement.

In 2009, McDonald’s and agricultural giant Cargill, which obtains and manages the egg supply for the fast-food chain, became founding members of the Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply. The coalition studied the differences among three henhouse systems. We humans might view the distinctions as akin to different classes in an airplane. First, there were the cramped traditional enclosures. They house six hens per cage, leaving each bird with 80 square inches of floor space, less than the dimensions of a standard sheet of paper. The second option is what egg folks call the “enriched colony” cage. Think of it as the “economy plus” section, or perhaps even business class. Enriched enclosures grant hens 116 square inches, leaving enough room for a perch, a nesting area, and a scratch pad. Finally, there is first class, or what’s known as the aviary, or cage-free, approach. Here the hens are allotted 144 square inches each and can roam anywhere they want inside a complex decked out with perches, nest areas, and litter areas.

But freedom, for chickens, isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Cage-free hens suffered twice the fatality rate of caged and enriched birds, according to the study. Some pecked each other to death. The air in cage-free units had higher levels of particles, ammonia, and toxic components of bacteria—all of which are worse for the human beings who work there. Free birds also required more feed. On the positive side, they had stronger bones, and they did the things that hens like to do: perch, nest, and “bathe” themselves in dust. But crucially—for a farm, anyway—the egg-per-uncaged-hen average lagged because of the elevated mortality and the birds’ tendency to lay eggs on the floor. Hens from enriched cages produced the most.

When the study came out, animal welfare groups claimed it was flawed. After all, it was funded by the industry, which has an interest in keeping hens in cages. But to the authors (from three universities and the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service), the study considered the system as a whole—worker health, cost, efficiency, food affordability and safety, and environmental impact—not just animal welfare, which has been the focus of most activist groups. “What is truly sustainable may not look aesthetically like what everyone wants,” says Janice Swanson, a professor of animal behavior and welfare at Michigan State University, who was one of the scientific directors of the study.

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 Hugues Labrecque, who runs the egg business that serves McDonald’s at Cargill. Once that became clear, cage-free became the inevitable consensus.

As the coalition study showed, even the definition of “humane” is not clear-cut. Is it more humane for a bird to live in a cage or to experience liberty and die prematurely? And what is most humane is not always what is most productive—an especially relevant question as agriculture tries to feed a few more billion people by the middle of the century.

Of course, McDonald’s built its empire on a system of relentless efficiency. But “in the pursuit of efficiency we introduced a lot of animal welfare problems,” says David Fraser, a professor of animal welfare at the University of British Columbia. Today some of those practices are “looked at with a kind of horror.” Consumers may not quite articulate it, but they seem to yearn for a return to animal husbandry rather than animal science.

“It’s a major shift of farming,” says Cargill’s Labrecque—and an even more radical shift for McDonald’s. A company that always viewed efficiency as its alpha and omega is putting that second to the well-being of a hen. For McDonald’s now, the chicken comes before the egg.
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