In September, McDonald’s Corp. announced plans to use nothing but cage-free eggs for its breakfast items within a decade.

In the weeks since, restaurant chains have followed suit at a rapid clip.

To date, 19 restaurant chains have announced plans to shift to cage-free eggs by a certain year, all but three of them in recent weeks, according to the Humane Society of the United States. And the move has broadened into other companies, notably grocery chains like Costco Wholesale Corp. and Target Corp.

“Up until the fall, it was just a smattering of companies with loose commitments or small commitments,” said Matthew Prescott, senior food policy director for the Humane Society, which has put pressure on the industry to use cage-free eggs.

“In September, it was the earthquake that shook the egg industry.

“Virtually every major restaurant chain now, including some grocery chains and consumer packaged goods companies are all announcing definitive, 100-percent cage-free by a certain date.”

To be sure, chains had been making cage-free egg commitments for years. In 2012, Burger King agreed to use all cage-free eggs by 2017. In 2013, the fast-casual chain Au Bon Pain announced plans to do the same thing. Some newer concepts have started off by using nothing but cage-free eggs.

And the supply of eggs had already been moving in that direction. As of September 2015, 8.6 percent of the eggs in the U.S. were cage-free, up from 5 percent the previous year, said John Howeth, executive vice president of the American Egg Board.

He also said that egg producers are already adding barns to enable them to raise hens outside of traditional cages.

“We had seen a lot of activity in this area before McDonald’s,” Howeth said.

McDonald’s is a massive seller of eggs, serving 2 billion eggs per year in the U.S. and Canada, and is almost certainly more now that the chain is serving breakfast items all day long.

But McDonald’s egg sales are still a fraction of the 100 billion eggs produced annually nationwide, according to Howeth. McDonald’s decision “doesn’t swing the supply that much,” he said.

Still, the move of the restaurant industry toward the use of cage-free eggs is a major victory for advocates that had been pushing companies for years to go in that direction.

The Humane Society has been working on this issue for well over a decade.

“There was a time 10 to 15 years ago when I’d be calling up a burger chain and trying to get a conversation started about cage-free eggs,” Prescott said. “They thought I was trying to sell them eggs. Times have changed a lot.”

That shift is consumer-oriented, brought about, experts say, by younger consumers demanding to know more about their food.

“The consumer has changed,” Prescott said. “Over the last 10 years, people have become more curious about their food. They want answers about animal cruelty. That has pushed chains in the right direction.”

Higher demand for cage-free eggs has clearly led producers to start supplying more of them. “It’s going to increase, no doubt about it,” Howeth said. “If that growth wasn’t there, you wouldn’t see as much production of cage-free houses.

“I think America’s egg farmers are going to meet whatever demand manufacturers and food chains want.”

He cautioned, however, that shifting the supply could take a while because cage-free eggs require new houses. Existing hen houses can be retrofitted to be cage-free, but then they would only be able to hold two-thirds of the number of hens.

Howeth added that the process requires new production that costs more money in addition to more training. There’s also higher mortality in those environments because hens have pecking orders, and will periodically peck one another to death. All told, that makes the task more difficult and expensive.

“It can’t be done overnight,” he said, adding that supply is changing rapidly enough to meet the growing demand. “I don’t anticipate any shortage or supply problems.”

From a supply standpoint, the big question is whether grocery stores shift more towards cage-free eggs. Both Costco and Target have announced cage-free egg plans, as have several other companies. If more grocers get in on the act, that could truly shift the supply chain because that’s where two-thirds of the nation’s eggs are sold.

Prescott, for one, believes a full shift is inevitable. “Within a decade,” he said, “I can’t imagine the [egg] supply doesn’t go cage-free.”

Correction: Jan. 29, 2016 This article has been updated to reflect that there are 100 billion eggs produced annually, not daily. 

Update: Feb. 1, 2016 This article has been updated to include the announcement that Sonic Corp. is moving to cage-free eggs.

Contact Jonathan Maze at jonathan.maze@penton.com
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