McDonald's Warns Farmers on Hen Treatment

McDonald's Warns Farmers on Hen Treatment

McDonald's Corp. has a message for chicken farmers: be kind to your hens or the hamburger giant will not buy your eggs.

Oak Brook, Illinois-based McDonald's said it will no longer do business with farmers who withdraw food and water from the hens, a controversial practice used to increase egg production. The restaurant chain also said it will not buy eggs from suppliers who trim the birds' beaks to keep them from hurting each other.

The new guidelines, established in conjunction with the Animal Welfare Council, also require egg suppliers to double the living space for each caged hen to a minimum of 72 square inches per bird from a current industry average of about 40 square inches.

McDonald's, the first major U.S. restaurant chain to take such action, said the new directive was the result of increased concern among scientists and the public at large.

"(McDonald's Chairman and Chief Executive) Jack Greenberg is committed that McDonald's will be a leader in animal welfare," McDonald's spokesman Walt Riker told Reuters.

"The bottom line is that when McDonald's speaks, people tend to listen because of our massive purchasing power," he said. "Our suppliers understand where we're going with this and the ones who want to come along can come along. We suspect they will."

He said McDonald's buys about 2 billion eggs annually to make such popular breakfast items as the Egg McMuffin and scrambled eggs. The company also uses eggs to make biscuits and other items.

Riker said McDonald's will "work with" its 26 suppliers on the increased cost associated with complying with the new guidelines.

Ken Klippen, executive director of government relations for Atlanta-based United Egg Producers, a cooperative of farmers representing about 80 percent of the eggs produced in the United States, said the processes used by producers today protect the animals and simply replicate nature.

"If you say that putting chickens in a cage is cruel, I submit to you that it is not cruel because science shows that it is healthier for the bird to be in a cage as opposed to running and stepping on its own droppings," said Klippen, who noted that the industry has been examining its practices for two years and plans to issue its own recommendations soon.

He also said farmers trim beaks to help protect the chickens from hurting each other. In addition, he said hens naturally stay away from food and water periodically and go into a resting period in order to eventually strengthen their reproductive systems and produce higher quality eggs.

He said McDonald's initiatives will definitely increase the cost of egg production.

"If they want (farmers) to comply with the specifications, McDonald's has to realise it's going to increase the cost of eggs substantially," he said.

Meanwhile, Patrick Schumann, an analyst at Edward Jones who follows McDonald's, said any financial impact from the change in guidelines is likely to be minimal on the fast-food giant.

"They are so big, you would expect the industry suppliers to change to suit McDonald's," he said. "If there is an impact, McDonald's can absorb it and offset it in other purchasing synergies or cost saving initiatives."

He also said it's unlikely McDonald's will pass on any cost increases to consumers since the restaurant industry is so competitive.

Bruce Friedrich, the vegetarian campaign coordinator for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), praised McDonald's for making the move, but said there is still room for improvement.

"This is a bare minimum," Friedrich said. "They need to take the hens out of cages. Even with the increased space, not one hen could spread one wing in those conditions."

He noted that the European Union already is phasing out the unethical treatment of hens, such as beak-trimming and withdrawing food and water. In Britain and several European countries, it is illegal to cage hens, he added.

"We in the U.S. still have a long way to go," Friedrich said.

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