Burger King on Wednesday became the first major U.S. fast-food chain to pledge that all of its eggs and pork will come from cage-free chickens and pigs by 2017.
The move by the world's second-biggest burger chain helps it satisfy growing demand among customers for humanely produced fare and adds fuel to an industrywide shift to consider animal welfare when purchasing food supplies.
"There's no question in my mind, especially on the heels of pink slime and BPA, that everyone in the food world is very concerned about consumer reaction," said food industry analyst Phil Lempert, referring to the beef-based food additive and the chemical used in plastic bottles and canned food.
"Even if you're buying a burger, you want to buy it from someone you like and respect," said Lempert, who writes a daily industry newsletter. "It's proven that consumers are willing to pay a little bit more for fairness, whether it's to humans or animals."
Conventionally produced eggs come from hens confined in "battery cages," which give them roughly the same space as a sheet of standard notebook paper. Most pork comes from sows confined during their four-month pregnancies in narrow crates.
Under the cage-free program, the hens are still housed in a barn, but they have room to roam and perches and nesting boxes. Sows are also held indoors but not confined in cramped crates while they are pregnant.
Egg and pork producers have argued that easing confinement standards for animals raises production costs and makes those who adjust their practices less competitive.
Animal welfare groups applauded Burger King's decision.
"So many tens of thousands of animals will now be in better living conditions," said Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, which has been pushing Burger King and other companies to adopt similar policies.
"Numerically, this is significant because Burger King is such a big purchaser of these products," he said.
Burger King uses hundreds of millions of eggs and tens of millions of pounds of pork annually, and its decision could be a game-changing move in the supply business as a huge new market opens up for humanely raised food animals.
Already 9 percent of the company's eggs and 20 percent of the pork served at its 7,200 restaurants are cage-free. In the European Union, all eggs are already of the cage-free variety.
In recent months, other companies have announced similar policies.
Chipotle, with just over 1,200 restaurants, made a splash during the Grammy Awards in February with its viral commercial detailing the company's commitment to humane treatment of animals and healthy food.
So far this year, McDonald's and Wendy's, the No. 1 and 2 burger chains in the U.S., respectively, said they asked their pork suppliers to outline plans for the elimination of gestation crates but didn't set a timetable. Also, Smithfield Farms and Hormel committed to ending the use of the crates by 2017.
Walmart and Costco have transitioned their private-label eggs to 100 percent cage-free. Unilever, which uses 350 million eggs a year in its Hellmann's mayonnaise brand, is switching to 100 percent cage-free. Other chain restaurants, such as Sonic, Subway and Ruby Tuesday, and manufacturers, such as Kraft Food and ConAgra Foods, are incorporating some percentage of cage-free eggs in their products.