- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 29, 2012

The nation’s fast-food giants are aggressively touting more humane ways of producing their menu offerings, but whether the kinder, gentler methods of serving up chicken nuggets and cheeseburgers can pay off at the cash register remains an open question.

Looking to trump moves by rivals McDonald's Corp. and Wendy's International Inc., industry No. 3 Burger King Corp. last week announced that it would take a more eco-friendly approach. By 2017, the company said, all the eggs and pork served to its customers will come from suppliers that don’t confine animals to cages or crates. It’s the first major fast-food burger chain to make a 100 percent “cage-free” commitment.

Jonathan Fitzpatrick, chief brand and operations officer at Burger King, called the move “the responsible thing to do” and one that “will allow us to leverage our purchasing power to ensure the appropriate and proper treatment of animals by our vendors and suppliers.”

Some say these moves, while well-intentioned, could backfire, leading to more animal deaths and environmental harm while taking bigger bites out of customers’ wallets.

“There are trade-offs with any decision,” said Charlie Arnot, CEO of the Center for Food Integrity. “So we’re encouraging them to consider these trade-offs before they simply respond to pressure from animal-interest groups.”

Although the more humane methods can generate positive headlines and enhance a brand’s reputation, the impact on the bottom line is less certain.

“I don’t think this will pay off from a financial standpoint,” Technomic restaurant analyst Darren Tristano said. “What typically happens is, you end up paying more. But you don’t do it because you expect to profit from it. You do it because it is good business sense. It shows good corporate social responsibility.”

Burger King announced its move just weeks after revealing that it would soon return to the New York Stock Exchange to trade its shares publicly. The last time the company’s shares were available for public sale was in 2010, when investment firm 3G Capital took it private for $3.3 billion. The company has announced an extensive revamping of its menu and a remodeling of its more than 12,000 outlets worldwide amid news that it had fallen to third place behind Wendy's in the fast-food hierarchy.

Mr. Arnot said Burger King’s move could lead to higher prices on the menu, increase the restaurants’ environmental footprints and even harm the animals that the brand is trying to protect.

“If cage-free is the right direction for you, that’s fine, but think about the implications to the environment, to hen health and well-being, to worker health and safety, and to food affordability before you make that decision,” he said.

When the hens roam free, he said, they tend to cluster. This can lead to suffocation.

“You’re also likely to see an increase in hen mortality,” he said. “One of the reasons that the cage systems have been developed is to protect hens from pecking each other.”

Some critics say the government definitions of “free-range” and “cage-free” practices have been so diluted that the changes in animal welfare are minimal.

Listening to the customer

Fast-food restaurant officials said they are acting on feedback from patrons.

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