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4/28/2012 3:13:00 PM
Burger King promises it will use cage-free eggs by 2017
Rose Acre Farms photo / Laying hens eat chicken feed in this photo from the Rose Acre Farms website.
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Rose Acre Farms photo / Laying hens eat chicken feed in this photo from the Rose Acre Farms website.

Tribune and The Associated Press

Burger King became the first major U.S. fast-food chain to pledge all of its pork and eggs will come from cage-free animals by 2017.

A local egg producer called the decision a “gimmick.”

The move by the world’s second-biggest burger chain helps it satisfy a growing demand among some customers for humanely produced fare and adds fuel to an industry-wide shift to consider animal welfare when purchasing food supplies.Tri

But Anthony Rust, one of the owners of Cortland-based Rose Acre Farms, questioned the announcement.

“It’s a gimmick,” Rust said Thursday. “When you go cage-free, you double or triple the mortality rate of the chickens, so that doesn’t help (the chickens), and it only makes the cost of eggs go higher.”

He said many egg producers, including Rose Acre, are switching from so-called “battery” cages to cages that he said are described as “enriched” or “colony cages.”

“It’s a bigger cage, and the mortality rate is probably about the same,” Rust said. “It satisfies what people want in terms of fewer chickens together and still allows production of eggs.”

Rust estimated the cost of producing eggs with the colony cages is about 20 percent higher than more traditional cages but far less than cage-free systems, where chickens are still contained.

Rust said egg producers are expecting about a 15-year transition from their older cages to the enriched colony cages, replacing the older cages as they wear out and need replaced.

Brian “K.Y.” Hendrix of Rose Acre Farms said he did not believe Burger King was a direct or indirect customer of the Cortland-based egg producer.

Food industry analysts say the decision is not a surprise.

“There’s no question in my mind, especially on the heels of pink slime and BPA, that everyone in the food world is very concerned about consumer reaction,” said food industry analyst Phil Lempert, referring to the beef-based food additive and the chemical used in plastic bottles and canned food.

“Even if you’re buying a burger, you want to buy it from someone you like and respect,” said Lempert, who writes a daily industry newsletter. “It’s proven that consumers are willing to pay a little bit more for fairness, whether it’s to humans or animals.”

Conventionally raised eggs come from hens confined in “battery cages,” which give them roughly the same space as a sheet of standard notebook paper, opponents say. Most pork comes from sows confined during their four-month pregnancies in narrow crates.

The hens would still be housed in a barn, but they have room to roam and perches and nesting boxes. Sows are also held indoors, but they would not be confined in the cramped crates while they are pregnant.

Egg and pork producers have argued that easing confinement standards for animals raises production costs and makes those who adjust their practices less competitive.

Rust said the term “cage-free” is a misnomer.

“They’re just in a big room, so they are still penned,” he said. “I find it odd and hard to believe they’re still pushing this. No matter how you do it, you have to have the chickens contained.”

Animal welfare groups applauded Burger King’s decision.

“So many tens of thousands of animals will now be in better living conditions,” said Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, which has been pushing Burger King and other companies to adopt similar policies.

“Numerically, this is significant because Burger King is such a big purchaser of these products,” he said.

Burger King uses hundreds of millions of eggs and tens of millions of pounds of pork annually and its decision could be a game-changing move in the supply business as a huge new market opens up for humanely raised food animals.

Already 9 percent of the company’s eggs and 20 percent of the pork served at its 7,200 restaurants are cage-free. In the European Union, all eggs are already of the cage-free variety.

The Miami-based company has been steadily increasing its use of the eggs and pork as the industry has become better able to meet demand, said Jonathan Fitzpatrick, chief brand and operations officer. Fitzpatrick said the decision is part of the company’s social responsibility policy.

In recent months, other companies have announced similar policies.

Chipotle, with just more than 1,200 restaurants, made a splash during the Grammy Awards in February with its viral commercial detailing the company’s commitment to humane treatment of animals and healthy food. After the commercial created so much buzz, other companies were quick to announce new policies, Lempert said.

“Everyone wanted to say: ‘We all have good intentions,’” he said.

So far this year, McDonald’s and Wendy’s, the No. 1 and 2 burger chains, said they asked their pork suppliers to outline plans for the elimination of gestation crates, but didn’t set a timetable. Also, Smithfield Farms and Hormel committed to ending the use of the crates by 2017.

Wal-Mart and Costco have transitioned their private-label eggs to 100 percent cage-free. Unilever, which uses 350 million eggs a year in its Hellmann’s mayonnaise brand, is switching to 100 percent cage-free. Others, such as Sonic, Subway, Ruby Tuesday chain restaurants, and manufacturers, such as Kraft Food and ConAgra Foods, are incorporating some percentage of cage-free eggs in their products.

“This is an issue that just four to five months ago was not on the food industry’s radar,” said Paul Shapiro, the Humane Society’s vice president for farm animal protection. “Now, it’s firmly cemented into the mainstream in a way that I think few people would have imagined.”

The egg industry’s largest trade association, the United Egg Producers, has teamed with the Humane Society in seeking federal legislation this year that would double the size of the battery cages in which 90 percent of the nation’s 280 million laying hens are confined. And last month, the pork industry’s trade magazine noted that public opinion is evolving and “on the issue of gestation-sow stalls, at least, it’s increasingly apparent that you will lose the battle.”

HSUS has been pushing for more than a decade for large-scale purchasers of animal products to ensure they are raised humanely. The organization owns stock in 52 companies so that it can attend shareholder meetings and submit proposals for improved animal welfare policy. It also has used undercover operations to show the conditions some food animals endure.

In 2007, Burger King became the first major fast-food chain to incorporate animal welfare into its purchasing policies when it began sourcing at least some of its pork and eggs from cage-free suppliers.

While some companies responded to consumer demand by incorporating some cage-free eggs into their orders, the landslide passage in 2008 of California’s Proposition 2, which will ban chicken cages and gestation crates by 2015, caused buyers and suppliers nationwide to take notice.

Since then, studies have shown that shoppers are willing to pay more for products they believe are produced to higher animal protection standards. Some estimates show raising hens cage-free adds 1 cent to the cost of each egg. It’s unclear how much more it will cost to raise pork outside of gestation cages.

“Our attitude is, our producers believe in consumer choice and, if that’s what their consumers want to buy, they’ll produce cage-free eggs for the marketplace provided the customer is willing to pay the additional cost,” said Gene Gregory, president of the United Egg Producers.

Editor, John C. DePrez Jr.; Executive Editor, Carol Rogers; Publishers: IBRC and IAR

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