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Is McDonald’s a Bad Egg or Good Egg?

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Or is the fast food giant just plain laying an egg? Lots of controversy has accompanied the company’s recent decision not to use eggs from cage-free chickens for its Egg McMuffin and other breakfast selections.

The U.S. Humane Society asked McDonald’s to take 5% of its egg-laying hens out of cages that are smaller than a sheet of paper, according to a recent article. The Society has advocated a more humane approach to egg and chicken meat production for some time now.

McDonald’s Board of Directors acknowledged that its major competitors, such as Wendy’s, Burger King, Denny’s and Hardee’s, already do so. But it also declined the request citing this reason: Research is inconclusive as to whether cage-free eggs are really better.

At first blush, it might look like McDonald’s doesn’t care about this issue. But that isn’t so. Last year, the company joined the Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply which will conduct more research on cage-free farming in the near future.

Interestingly, McDonald’s uses cage-free eggs in Europe already. No doubt due to political pressure there. With upcoming testing, the company will likely adopt the same policy in the United States in the future. It will all depend on new research into cage free and other options being explored by the Coalition. And it will likely depend on how costs can be managed.

A recent article took pains to present both sides of this controversial issue and did it very well. I think it’s worth looking at.

The upside of caged chickens (according to a Pew study):
• Cheaper, more efficient food production
• Prevents the spread of animal-borne diseases like salmonella
• Protects the animals from bad weather conditions
• Keeps the cost of the eggs and chicken meat lower

The downside:
• Animals kept in small, confined spaces suffer because their movements are very limited. It is thought many animals live in pain. (Note: Even cage-free birds are often deprived of fresh air and sunlight, often almost as confined as caged chickens because there are thousands of birds sharing a specific amount of space. The main difference: They can move around freely.
• Caged free eggs cost much more. The USDA reports that a dozen eggs from caged chickens average $1.11 at retail whereas a dozen cage-free eggs retail for $2.79; organic eggs cost even more.

Questions:
• Do you purchase cage-free eggs at the supermarket or are they too expensive? Would you buy them if you could afford to?
• Would you prefer that McDonald’s purchase most of its eggs from cage-free producers?
• If they don’t, would that send you to a competitor to purchase a fast breakfast instead?
• Would you be willing to pay more for McDonald’s breakfast foods made with more expensive eggs? If so, how much more would you be willing to pay?

I’d love to hear from you.


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Ted Mininni is president of Design Force, Inc. (www.designforceinc.com), a leading brand-design consultancy to consumer product companies (phone: 856-810-2277). Ted is also a regular contributor to the MarketingProfs blog, the Daily Fix.

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  • by Paul Barsch Thu Apr 29, 2010 via blog

    Ted, just finished DVD "Food Inc" a couple of weeks ago. Did you see it? While the movie was a bit one sided, it still proved to be an eye opener. As for your above article, I appreciate that you offered both sides of the debate on caged vs. free chickens.

  • by Ted Mininni Thu Apr 29, 2010 via blog

    Hi Paul,

    No I didn't happen to see Food Inc yet. As with any issue, I think it important to look at all sides and let people draw their own conclusions. As consumers become more informed, I expect these debates will continue. . .but I think that's a good thing. The marketplace should dictate food choices with their wallets. Thanks for weighing in here, Paul. I appreciate it.

  • by Ann Handley Thu Apr 29, 2010 via blog

    Ted & Paul: Have you read "Eating Animals"? That lays out the issue even more plainly.

    For most people, and families, I think the issues of cage-free eggs (and even Eating Animals) is a moral issue, and a nuanced one, as well.

    But is the decision is anything more than an economic one for McDonalds? McDonalds buys and sells in vast quantities, and in the end doesn't their bottom line outweigh moral considerations? (Unless, of course, the decision to buy organic or cage-free ultimately wins them more business. But still the decision is ultimately an economic one, not a moral one.)

    I wish that consumers like us would pressure retailers like McDonalds to, in turn, pressure factory farms to adopt more humane practices generally. Then perhaps this wouldn't be.. well, a chicken-and-egg discussion.

  • by Ted Mininni Fri Apr 30, 2010 via blog

    Hi Ann,

    Thanks for commenting on my post. To answer your question: there is a moral issue here as well as an economic one. I believe most food businesses must weigh these considerations and now more than ever. Some consumers are quite passionate about animal husbandry and others aren't concerned in the least. Most likely fall somewhere in the middle. Just the fact we are all increasingly talking about these issues focuses attention on them and creates the environment for change. Since McDonald's is already using cage-free eggs in Europe, it will likely do so in the near future here in the U.S. In the meantime, consumers should educate themselves and become more aware so we can all make better food choices.

  • by AmoebaMike Fri Apr 30, 2010 via blog

    Ted,
    >Do you purchase cage-free eggs at the supermarket or are they too expensive? Would you buy them if you could afford to?

    No, I don't buy them. If they were the same, I'd be willing to consider it.

    > Would you prefer that McDonald’s purchase most of its eggs from cage-free producers?

    Not particularly. For the reason there is no outrage (that I've heard) about fish farming, cage-free doesn't accomplish much. They need to remove the beaks in the cage-free environment, otherwise the chickens will fight each other. They're vile little creatures... but, oh, so delicious!

    > Would you be willing to pay more for McDonald’s breakfast foods made with more expensive eggs? If so, how much more would you be willing to pay?

    Eh, I can understand the cost increase increases the product price. If that's a decision McD's makes, I'll probably be stuck with it as I prefer it over most other options--usually for convenience, despite the fact I prefer DD, Chick-Fil-A, and the old-school Subway (before this new abomination that's available everywhere).

    We're really quite lucky to have this debate: don't think too many people in Mogadishu or New Dehli ghettos worry about such things.

    As a side note, Food, Inc. is a joke. It is very one-sided and doesn't present solutions; it only offers criticism.

  • by Laura Orban Sat May 1, 2010 via blog

    I think it's both. I think it is a moral issue in terms of how the animals are treated. But even cage free environments still constitute concentrated animal feeding operations (aka factory farms) which result in inhumane conditions, unhealthy meat and a terrible impact to the environment. CAFOs have implications for even those of us who do not patronize McDonald's, therefore I think their business practices do become subject to the values society as a whole maintains.

    Even if we don't care about the lives of the animals (and I do), there is a financial impact to the pollution from CAFOs, as well as the overuse of hormones and antibiotics. These things both have costs. Just as we are seeing that there is a cost to general disregard for the environment, there is a cost to getting a $0.99 Egg McMuffin. Those costs can be covered as they are are incurred now, sandwich by sandwich and people can pay what the food really costs. Or they can be delayed and perhaps there will be lawsuits or major environmental cleanup required on the part of the companies that contributed the most. Taking steps to produce their food in a responsible manner is a good financial decision as well.

    As a side note, I have to take exception to calling protecting chickens from the weather a "benefit" of battery cages. To me that's like convicting the wrong guy and then saying "well at least being in jail protected you from getting stuck in traffic!" I'm pretty sure any chicken would prefer a natural life that included some rain over life in a tiny cage where its feet grow around the wire, its beak is seared off, it can't move and lives in its own filth without sun or the ability to express any natural instinct.

  • by Ted Mininni Mon May 3, 2010 via blog

    Hi Amoeba Mike,
    Thanks for taking the time to answer the questions I posed in my post. I appreciate your insights--and your wit. I believe many consumers would agree with your assessments. . .while others will vehemently disagree. That's what constitutes an open marketplace, isn't it? To your point: yes, there are many weightier issues in our country and around the world. Still: we are what we eat and as consumers become increasingly aware of our food supply and the issues around bringing food to market, I expect these kinds of debate to increase. Thanks again, Mike.

  • by Ted Mininni Mon May 3, 2010 via blog

    Hi Laura,
    You've said many cogent things here and I thank you. An emerging area in business concerns itself with "the actual cost of goods". Since many factors around the manufacture of consumer products have long been hidden and are now being discussed, we have a better idea of what the true costs of production are. That's what you're referring to here when discussing all of the effects surrounding chickens that are being raised for food. Consumers will ultimately dictate changes in the marketplace. While many consumers care deeply about these issues, many remain uninformed and do not see this as a priority, while a good many fall somewhere in between. I suspect McDonald's will make changes to their policy in the near future. But I also think it wise that they joined the Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply to further study the issue. As a result, better solutions than simply being "cage free" may yet emerge.

  • by Amanda Mon May 3, 2010 via blog

    CAGED HENS ARE MORE HUMANE AND HERE'S WHY:
    Cage-free and free range are exposed to many more potential problems than caged....for instance: in free-range they are open to predators such as hawks, foxes, etc., also open to the weather (blazing hot, freezing cold, rain, etc) so their mortality can be around 3 times higher than caged. While cage free are better than free range they still face issues such as disease and an unforgiving "pecking order." In caged the hens are kept separate from manure, in cage free they walk around in it, lay their eggs in it, and unfortunately eat it and can get coccidiosis which will basically make their insides bleed. So while caged limit their freedom, if the producer is UEP certified the birds are kept in a humane manner so that they can stand up, turn around, move freely and have access to food and water 100% of the time and be closely monitored so that each bird can get adequate care. HSUS loves to say they can't stretch their wings....1) that is false if they are UEP certified 2) do we as humans stand around w/ our arms extended all day long? I think not so to act like we all (and chickens) need to stand around all day w/ their arms extended is just plain silly. Simply put mortality is 2 and 3 times higher in cage-free and free-range. Happy healthy chickens don't die!!!

  • by Ted Mininni Mon May 3, 2010 via blog

    Amanda,

    You've illustrated my last point beautifully. You've done your homework and I thank you. It appears cage free or free range might not be the best alternative to caged chickens given the information you've uncovered. Larger cages that enable hens to move around freely may be a better alternative. See: that's why the coalition McDonald's joined might find an optimal solution to this issue. I might just add this: animals should be kept in the most humane conditions possible. Every living creature needs adequate space and decent living conditions; fresh air, sunshine, good food and water to thrive.

  • by Alison Mon May 3, 2010 via blog

    As someone who's raised chickens, I'm afraid I have to respectfully disagree with Amanda regarding free-range vs caged chickens. I've kept my birds both free range and penned up in a chicken house (they were getting in the neighbors yard; fortunately after talking to my neighbors I discovered they didn't care and now they are free range again). When they were penned, they seemed unhappy and got mean. I can see how an adequately large cage could be better than a "cage-free" situation where the birds are crammed together too tightly, but free-range with room to run and eat grass and bugs gives them the highest quality of life. They enjoy running and being in the sunshine-I'm convinced of it. If you want to argue against free-range because deaths from predation represent an economic burden to the farmers, all right-but arguing that keeping them caged increases their quality of life is disingenuous.

  • by Laura Orban Tue May 4, 2010 via blog

    Amanda,

    I have to address some of your points. Let's be clear about terminology. When you cite "free range", what exactly do you mean? In the US, "free range" means only that chickens have access to the outside which typically means that they are crammed into a large building where a small door is opened for a limited time. The legal designation does not dictate how long the access is provided. So opening a door briefly, even if none of the chickens get out, still qualifies all of them to be sold as "free range". Therefore I question your attribution of a 3 times higher mortality rate to weather and wild animals for free range chickens.

    Caged hens are not kept out of their excrement, in fact it's a big problem because battery cages are stacked on top of each other so they live not only in their own filth but in the filth of their neighbors.

    Battery cages are typically 67 square inches. I do not walk around with my arms outstretched all day. But I walk around. I do not stay in a tiny area just slightly bigger than myself my entire life and my guess is neither do you.

    United Egg Producers is an industry trade group which faced false advertising claims by 16 state attorneys general and paid $100,000 to settle those claims. The Better Business Bureau ruled that UEP engaged in misleading advertising when it came to animal welfare.

    Some people don't care what happened to the animals they eat. Some people don't know. But I find both of those positions quite different from suggesting that life in a battery cage is clean and wonderful, and that it produces healthy, happy chickens.

  • by Ted Mininni Wed May 5, 2010 via blog

    Great conversation: Laura, Amanda and Alison. All of your opinions lead to an important discussion about raising animals for food. There are many points of view, obviously. I find that people who actually raise chickens and observe their tendencies as well as their needs more closely should be listened to. Again: all of the pros and cons of each argument have to be weighed and the best course chosen for food retailers and restaurants. Consumer opinion, animal conditions and economic considerations all come together here. Let's hope at the end of the day, information and research lead to our making the best decisions possible. Thanks to all of you for sharing your insights. I appreciate it.

  • by John Eckman Wed May 12, 2010 via blog

    Of course, there's another option: don't buy eggs at all. (Or slaughtered chickens either).

    This avoids the whole dilemma of whether so-called "cage-free" or "free-range" chickens suffer more or less than their factory-farmed cousins.

    For example, regardless of how egg-laying hens are treated, every living egg-laying hen had a brother who was "surplus," of no value to the egg laying industry, and therefore killed at birth.

    Check out The Humane Myth for info on some of the issues with egg production even in so-called humane methods.

  • by Ted Mininni Wed May 12, 2010 via blog

    Provocative statements, John. Of course many vegetarians don't eat chicken at all and some do on occasion. Vegans do not eat any meat. Nor do they eat anything that comes from animals, ie. honey, eggs, milk, etc. But all of this is a personal choice, isn't it? My only point in a post like this is that consumers ought to become informed and then make their choices. Some people care deeply about these issues and others don't. Thanks for weighing in, John. I welcome all points of view. They contribute to a well-rounded discussion.

  • by Jo Tyler Wed May 12, 2010 via blog

    Ted, does "personal choice" have limits? Is it really ok for us to engage in institutionalized animal abuse when vegan options are readily available simply because we have a trivial desire for a particular flavor? Is that really ethical? I believe we all have rights - and our rights end where another's rights begin. It's all fine and dandy for me to make "personal choices" so long as they don't directly cause intentional harm to others.

    Every time we eat, we can choose to add to the level of violence and misery in the world, or to the level of peace and compassion. I choose compassion. I choose vegan.

  • by Ted Mininni Wed May 12, 2010 via blog

    Hi Jo,

    Thank you for sharing your perspective with us. As I said before: we must all become informed as consumers and make conscious choices and decisions. You've made yours and I respect that. You obviously feel much more passionately about this issue than many people do. Good for you, Jo.

  • by John Eckman Wed May 12, 2010 via blog

    Certainly it's a personal choice, and I agree absolutely that "consumers ought to become informed," including being informed that they don't need to choose between two options, one of which may or may not involve "less cruelty" - there is absolutely no necessity of eggs or poultry in the human diet.

    IMHO, a vegetarian who eats chicken "on occasion" isn't a vegetarian at all (or is so only occasionally) but an omnivore.

    Thanks for provoking the conversation.

    As more and more businesses start leveraging social media to market themselves as "green" or "humane" or "socially responsible" these kinds of issues will be more and more relevant to marketing professionals not just as individuals making those choices but as professionals hoping to influence them . . .

  • by Ted Mininni Wed May 12, 2010 via blog

    John,

    Thanks for sharing your point of view in such an articulate manner. As people become more informed about myriad issues, their choices will likely change. That will dictate future marketing offerings, right? Many people enjoy eating chicken and/or eggs, and they will likely continue to. We make our personal choices and so does everyone else.

  • by Adriel Wed May 12, 2010 via blog

    There's a market that is willing to pay for the feeling they get when purchasing these kinds of goods. McDonalds customer base is probably not that market.

  • by Ted Mininni Wed May 12, 2010 via blog

    Hi Adriel,

    Good point. Last week, I was reading an article that stated something to the effect that most consumers like the concept of buying free range and organic eggs in theory. In practice, however, they generally shy away from actually purchasing them in favor of the less expensive caged eggs. There are customers for every kind of product, but not everybody is willing to pay a premium price for a commodity, are they? Thanks for weighing in here, Adriel.

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