SAN DIEGO — A demand by the McDonald's Corp. restaurant chain for more comfortable working conditions for the millions of chickens that produce 2 billion eggs a year for its Egg McMuffins and other items is being met with squawks of disapproval from much of the egg industry.
Some of the loudest complaints are coming from California, the nation's third-largest egg producer.
The state Farm Bureau last week warned that McDonald's newly announced rules for the treatment of hens could add 15 cents to 20 cents per dozen to the cost of producing eggs, at a time when egg prices are declining due to overproduction and many egg ranchers are struggling to break even.
In a letter to its egg suppliers nationwide, McDonald's said it wants each laying hen to have 72 square inches of space and for producers to put an end to beak clipping and starvation-induced molting. Molting is a natural process that restores a hen's ability to lay eggs.
Although only a fraction of the nation's egg producers sell to McDonald's, the industry sees the move as an unneeded intrusion and a harbinger of things to come, as other restaurant chains and supermarkets follow the Oak Brook, Ill., fast-food giant's lead in an attempt to placate animal-rights activists.
"McDonald's has just jumped in with a bunch of rules they want everyone to follow, regardless of the cost," said Jerry Armstrong, an egg rancher with 1 million hens in Valley Center north of San Diego. "We've been in business 50 years, and McDonald's is going to tell us how to treat our hens? We're always concerned with our birds' welfare. If they're not happy and contented, they won't lay eggs and we're out of the egg business."
So far, McDonald's is unmoved by the storm kicked up by the company's rules for producers--which it intends to enforce with unannounced "audits." The company in recent years has also issued rules for its beef and pork producers.
"We think we're moving the needle on an important issue," said Bob Langert, in charge of animal welfare and environmental programs for the company. "When it comes to social responsibility, McDonald's plans to be a leader."
Others, however, think McDonald's caved in to pressure from activists such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which has been slamming McDonald's for years about the chicken issue and has even established a Web site alleging that McDonald's buys eggs from ranches where chickens are kept in cramped and dirty cages.
"A vocal minority of animal activists, who are vegetarians, have finally realized that the way to get things done is to put pressure on retail outlets like restaurants and supermarkets," said Don Bell, poultry specialist at the University of California Cooperative Extension, based in Riverside.
On Wednesday, PETA sent a letter to McDonald's commending its action and urging it to go even further in protecting hens.
Ingrid Newkirk, president of PETA, said the group's decision was prompted, in part, by the opposition of much of the egg industry toward McDonald's new rules. "What McDonald's has done will spare 5 million hens a great deal of suffering," she said.
Newkirk said her group will drop its anti-McDonald's campaign and instead focus on persuading Burger King, Wendy's, Kentucky Fried Chicken and supermarket chains such as Kroger, Albertson's and Safeway to follow McDonald's lead in their egg-purchasing rules.
In a six-page letter to its suppliers two weeks ago, McDonald's said that by the end of next year, it will buy eggs only from producers that "support our corporate guidelines related to animal welfare."
The guidelines were developed by McDonald's animal welfare council, including two animal-science professors, an official with the American Farm Bureau Federation and an official with the Animal Welfare Institute, a grass-roots group dedicated to saving endangered species.
For its 13,000 U.S. restaurants, McDonald's buys 2.5% of the 75 billion eggs produced in the country each year. In California, eggs are a $333-million-a-year business, with 24 million birds; the top counties for egg production are Riverside, Stanislaus, San Diego and Merced.
The McDonald's rules would mean a boost of about 50% in the industry standard amount of cage space per bird. The 72-square-inch rule would allow hens to all lie down at the same time, a more comfortable position for them, Langert said.
But some egg ranchers, like Armstrong, say the rules would force them to reduce flocks to give each hen more space. "These rules would put me out of business," he said.
Bell said that what McDonald's is doing is "a drastic departure from the standard ways of treating poultry, the idea of buyers dictating to ranchers how to treat their flocks."
Although McDonald's is the first food supplier to issue guidelines to its suppliers, the issue of hen treatment is under review by the Department of Agriculture and the United Egg Producers, a trade group that represents 80% of the industry.