When you're looking for things to complain about, fast-food joints offer a seemingly never-ending list: Excess sugar, fat, and salt, calorie counts that will blow your mind, genetically engineered oils and other questionable ingredients, and animal welfare concerns, to name a few. But it looks like there's a positive side to fast food after all.
In an announcement that will likely change the dynamics of animal welfare in the fast food industry, Burger King said its U.S. chains will completely phase out the use of eggs and pork from chickens and pigs confined in tiny cages within the next five years. That promises large impact, given there are 12,500 Burger King food joints in the country.
The company's new policy outlines a plan to transition to 100 percent cage-free eggs, and a promise to only buy pork from suppliers that document plans to end the use of gestation crates for breeding pigs. Gestation crates are metal confinement crates used to hold breeding sows (female pigs) for nearly their entire lives before being butchered. About 70 percent of breeding sows in the United States are raised in these restrictive crates, in which the pigs—generally very social creatures—can't walk or even turn around.
"For more than a decade, Burger King Corp. has demonstrated a commitment to animal welfare and, through our BK Positive Steps corporate responsibility program, we continue to leverage our purchasing power to ensure the appropriate and proper treatment of animals by our vendors and suppliers," says Jonathan Fitzpatrick, chief brand and operations officer of Burger King Corp. "We are proud to announce these new, industry-leading commitments that support meaningful standards of humane treatment in our U.S. supply chain."
The Humane Society of the United States supports the new policy.
While Burger King has been a leader in promoting better living standards for animal products it sources, other companies are announces changes in the positive direction, too. Many companies offering quick meals and express lattes are paying real attention to one thing in particular—better living conditions for the animals that provide the eggs, bacon, and milk used in the billions of fast-food meals they serve up every year.
Earlier this year, McDonald's announced it will require its U.S. pork suppliers to create plans to phase out their use of gestation stalls.
Wendy's, Red Robin, Sonic, and Subway have also taken steps to move away from pork producers using gestation crates in some form or another, although they are operating on different timelines. "The fast-food industry has taken positive strides away from supporting the confinement of pigs in gestation crates, but the industry still has a long way to go, and consumers are demanding quicker change," says Josh Balk, director of corporate policy at the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).
HSUS supports these changes in the fast-food industry, but to be clear, the improvements are far from perfect. Most animals are still living in industrial, warehouse-like facilities, not outside on a small farm pasture, as many commercials would have you believe, and the feed they eat is still likely grown using harmful pesticides and genetically engineered seeds. But overall, many animal welfare advocates believe this is a big step in the right direction because it will allow them to engage in more natural behaviors. "All animals deserve humane treatment, including farm animals, and it's just wrong to immobilize animals for their whole lives in crates barely larger than their bodies," says Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of HSUS.
McDonald's announced it would review its suppliers' crate-phase-out plans and share them with the public this May. Just this week, Bon Appétit, a food-service company that operates more than 400 cafés for corporations, universities, and museums announced it would source 100 percent of its pork from gestation-crate-free operations within three years.
So why the sudden interest in freeing our farm animals from tiny cages?
"Poll after poll shows consumers are very opposed to holding farm animals in crates and cages," explains Balk. When states take up the issue on ballot initiatives, poll-goers consistently vote for better animal living conditions. For instance, legislation to ban gestation crates has already been passed in Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Maine, Michigan, Ohio, and Oregon.
Check out some other positive changes in the fast-food industry:
In addition to eliminating gestation crates in the pork industry, HSUS is pushing hard to eliminate the use of battery cages in egg-laying operations. In a typical factory-farm setting, these crates are stacked on top of each other—often up to the warehouse ceiling—and can span the length of a football field. Six hens are typically jammed into a crate. A hen's lifelong living space is smaller than the size of a letter-size piece of paper.
Read More: Truly Healthy Eggs: A Quick & Easy Guide
More than 90 percent of eggs sold in stores and used in fast-food chains, restaurants, and food-service operations come from battery-cage eggs, but a new bill in Congress, HR 3798, would ban battery cages and would require better egg-carton labeling so that shoppers can better understand where their eggs come from. If passed, the national law would require hens be kept in cages that are double the space and have perches and nest boxes, or be completely cage free.
Take Action: Tell Your Rep to Support HR 3798
Cage-free eggs, although likely still from hens living inside a large barn, are produced under conditions in which the birds are allowed to move about more freely and partake in natural behaviors that keep them happy and healthy, including dust-bathing, scratching, running, jumping, and laying eggs in a nest.
Fast-food joints are, at least partially, making the switch to cage-free eggs, which are up to 21 times less likely to carry salmonella. "If you look back five years ago, virtually no restaurant chains were using cage-free eggs," says Balk. "Now, nearly every national, major chain is using at least some cage-free eggs, including Burger King, Wendy's IHOP, Denny's, and McDonald's."
Krispy Kreme, and Dunkin Donuts have also announced an interesting in sourcing more cage-free eggs.
If you watched the Grammys earlier this month, you may have caught an animated, anti-factory-farming commercial set to the tune of Coldplay's "The Scientist," sung by Willie Nelson. Chipotle, a national burrito chain, was behind the ad and, as it turns out, the company walks the walk in terms of sustainable food sourcing.
Watch It: Chipotle's Factory Farming Ad
Chipotle tries to source local ingredients whenever possible, and often buys pastured meats directly from regional farmers. When the chain can't source local meats, it relies on national meat suppliers committed to humane treatment of their animals, for instance, Niman Ranch pork and Bell & Evans chicken.
Organic & Fair Trade Beans
Coffee is a must-have for many Americans, but how it's grown can greatly impact other communities around the world. Farmer exploitation and child labor are common problems in the industry, and pesticides used on coffee plantations pose risks both to workers and the environment.
The good news is some big players in the coffee industry have made big moves to offer more sustainable choices. While Dunkin Donuts' regular coffee isn't Fair Trade certified, its espresso beans are, so you can feel good about enjoying your lattes. Since switching to fair trade espresso beans in 2004, the company has purchased more than 24 million pounds of Fair Trade Certified espresso.
Read More: Organic Coffee Taste Test: The Results Are In!
Starbucks also offers a selection of Fair Trade and certified-organic beans. (In 2009, the company purchased 14 million pounds of certified-organic coffee.) Much of the company's other sourcing falls under its Coffee and Farmer Equity Practices guidelines that lay out more sustainable standards. Starbucks also phased out the use of rBGH-containing milk. This genetically engineered growth hormone has been linked to breast and prostate cancer.
Some fast-food joints aren't just improving their food-sourcing practices, but are focusing on the efficiency of actual bricks-and-mortar stores, too. Starbucks is a leader in this category since announcing that all new franchise stores must be LEED certified, meeting strict energy- and water-usage criteria.
Read More: The Best Ways to Cut Your Energy Bill
This includes using reclaimed materials for floors and countertops, opting for cabinetry made from recycled materials without adding formaldehyde glues, opting for energy-efficient lighting, low- or no-VOC paints that help keep the indoor air clean, among its initiatives. In 2011, Starbucks won Global Green USA's 2011 green building design award for its innovative resource-saving measures.