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.
"We're all listening to what our customers are telling us," Wendy's spokesman Denny Lynch said. "Consumers are more interested in their ingredients. They're more interested in the sourcing and where the food is coming from, and they're more interested in the humane treatment of the animals."
But don't expect these chains to go vegetarian anytime soon.
Wendy's customers "do understand that these animals are raised for food," Mr. Lynch said. "They're not pets. We're not going to be buying pillows for every animal."
Burger King's plan for cage-free eggs means the chickens that produce its breakfast-sandwich eggs will not be enclosed in tiny cages. Instead, they will be free to roam around the supplier's barn.
Burger King was the first major restaurant chain to begin buying cage-free products in 2007. About 9 percent of its eggs and 20 percent of its pork are raised cage-free. The company said last week that it will shift completely to cage-free production over the next five years.
McDonald's and Wendy's have asked pork suppliers to develop plans to eliminate gestation crates, the small cages in which pregnant pigs are kept, but they have not set a timetable.
Wendy's has turned its focus to less-traumatic ways of killing chickens, Mr. Lynch said. The restaurant doesn't compete as much in the breakfast market, so it uses fewer eggs than either McDonald's or Burger King.
In an effort to improve animal welfare for the chickens it uses for sandwich meat, Wendy's has been moving away from electric stunning of chickens before they are brought to the chopping block.
"We are active in identifying more humane methods of doing that," Mr. Lynch said.
He said electric stunning has been an industry standard "for a long, long time" and that there is nothing unethical about it, but he added that his restaurant chain is simply trying to find better methods.
Wendy's has considered "low atmospheric pressure systems," or LAPS, to suffocate rather than stun chickens. Wendy's has one top supplier that uses this "less invasive" method, Mr. Lynch said.
Explaining the process, he said, "When you get in an airplane and fly to high altitudes, you have to put on an air mask. So this process is what is used to treat the chickens, except they don't get an air mask."
Restaurants aren't the only ones transitioning to cage-free food.
Retailers Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Costco Wholesale Corp. have made the move with 100 percent of their private-label eggs. Unilever NV, which makes Hellmann's mayonnaise using 350 million eggs a year, is in the process of doing so. Others in the food industry, such as Sonic Corp., Subway, Ruby Tuesday Inc. and Kraft Foods Inc., are taking similar steps.
McDonald's has been a staunch user of cage-free food in Europe.
"I think they're trying to get ahead of the curve and McDonald's here," said Mr. Tristano, the restaurant analyst. "If you're Burger King, and you know McDonald's is doing it in other countries, it's a smart move."
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