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Cage-free promise on Burger King pork, eggs by 2017

Cage-free promise: Burger King has pledged that all of its pork and eggs will come from cage-free chickens and pigs within the next five years. The Burger King cage-free promise marks a huge step in the shift toward more humane treatment of livestock.

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Conventionally raised eggs come from hens confined in battery cages that give them roughly the same footprint as an 8½ by 11 sheet of paper. Most pork comes from sows that are confined during their four-month pregnancies in narrow crates.

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"For every cage-free egg or piece of bacon from a gestation-free pork system that Burger King sells, animals have been spared lifelong confinement in a cage so small they can barely even move," said Matthew Prescott, the HSUS food policy director.

In 2007 Burger King became the first major fast-food restaurant chain to incorporate animal welfare issues into its purchasing policies when it began sourcing at least some of its pork and eggs from cage-free suppliers. The hens are still housed in a barn, but they have room to roam and perches and nesting boxes.

While some companies have been responding to consumer demand by incorporating some percentages of cage-free eggs into their purchase orders, the landslide passage by voters in 2008 of California's Proposition 2, which will ban chicken cages and gestation crates by 2015, caused buyers and suppliers nationwide to take notice. Since then studies have shown that shoppers are willing to pay more for products they believe are produced to higher animal protection standards.

Since then Wal-Mart 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, and others such as Sonic, Subway, Ruby Tuesday, Kraft Food and ConAgra Foods are incorporating some percentage of cage-free eggs in their products.

Egg and pork producers have argued that easing confinement standards for animals raises production costs and makes those who adjust their practices less competitive. That prompted the egg industry's largest trade association, the United Egg Producers, to team with HSUS in seeking federal legislation this year that would double the size of the cages in which 90 percent of the nation's 280 million laying hens are confined.

Industry officials who have argued against cage-free eggs say hens are safer and eggs are less likely to be diseased in a cage system of hen housing.

"Our attitude is our producers believe in consumer choice and if that's what their consumers want to buy, they'll produce cage-free eggs for the marketplace provided the customer is willing to pay the additional cost," said Gene Gregory, president of the United Egg Producers.

Some studies have shown that raising hens cage-free adds 1-cent to the cost of each egg. It's unclear how much more it will cost to raise pork outside of gestation cages.

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