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Where is the transparency at Burger King?

By: Leslie Ballentine, Farming and Food Commentator

I was as surprised as anyone to hear the news last week that Burger King in the U.S. is making an exclusive move to purchase “cage-free” eggs and pork within five years. It has certainly dominated the news. Even my urban friends (knowing I work in agriculture) have brought it up the past few days. Sadly however I haven’t been able to provide answers to some of their questions.

I was aware that the Miami-based fast-food giant has a purchasing policy that includes a modest amount of what they misleadingly term humanely raised product. In 2010, the company reports, 9 percent of its eggs and 20 percent of its pork were sourced from “cage-free” farms. Last week’s public promise will take this to 100 percent by 2017; an ambitious move given that in 2010 only 4 percent of 10.5 million laying hens in the U.S. were raised in this manner. The target for pork is more achievable simply because the company is only requiring their farm suppliers have a plan in place to change from individual sow housing to group pens. A trend that is happening anyway.

As to whether this corporate policy will apply to the Canadian side of their business has not been revealed. Although a spokesman for the Humane Society of the United States, the main driver behind this policy, speculated on the CBC it likely will apply. For unknown reasons the company has left it to the Humane Society to speak to the announcement.

Even less transparent, is what the company and the HSUS mean by ”cage-free”. It is generally assumed to mean laying chickens not kept in cages. So, on the surface at least, the public is being led to believe that by 2017 the eggs we purchase at our local Burger King will come from hens free to roam, either on the floors of barns or outdoors. Yet without defining this for the public, this assumption may be wrong.

We can’t turn to authorities either. That’s because there are no government definitions or consistent references for marketing terms such as free-range or cage-free here in Canada or in the U.S.A. As a result, Burger King’s pronouncement is left to our imagination.

At odds with the Burger King declaration is a move afoot in the U.S. to mandate the use of a particular type of laying cage. Currently, the U.S. egg industry is working with the HSUS to legislate the use of what are termed

Enriched colony cages for egg laying hens

enriched colony cages. This method of laying hen housing involves larger cages with “furnishings” such as roosts and nesting areas.  They are considered an acceptable compromise by both parties in meeting the health and welfare of laying hens and the food safety needs of people. They are however still cages and cannot be rightfully termed cage-free.  If these types of cages are what Burger King means, then they and HSUS should be forthright.

Market observers, meanwhile, are questioning whether this latest move is an attempt by the struggling restaurant chain to bolster its position in the marketplace. As the first retailer in North America to go the full nine-yards, the chain is taking a calculated risk ahead of its leading competitors. Practicalities aside, the opportunity to up-charge its customers for these higher cost products may help the company’s bottom line, or may be its undoing.

Until the Next Blog

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Posted by FFC on April 30th, 2012 :: Filed under eggs,Food,Housing,HSUS,Retailers
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