Have you seen the MSNBC "Morning Joe" video that we have here on MNN about Burger King’s decision to stop using eggs from caged chickens and pork from pigs kept in gestation crates? In the video, Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society, explains the problems with animals kept in those conditions and applauds Burger King’s decision.

Pacelle took a piece of letter-sized paper, folded about a third of it down, and demonstrated that battery-caged chickens live their lives in a cage with a 67-inch diameter, the size of the paper in his hand. Caged chickens are kept in cruel and inhumane conditions. Burger King’s decision to only buy cage-free eggs is a positive step, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the chickens will have cruelty-free lives.

I went to the Humane Society’s website and found an article on Cage-Free vs. Battery-Cage Eggs. When chickens are removed from battery cages, they gain the following benefits.

  • They are able to walk.
  • They can spread their wings.
  • They can lay their eggs in nests.

That’s certainly an improvement over being confined to a 67-inch cage, but the article goes on to explain, “Most cage-free hens live in very large flocks that can consist of many thousands of hens who never go outside.” It also says that it would “be a mistake to consider cage-free facilities to necessarily be "cruelty-free."

  • Cage-free chicks are often bought from the same hatcheries as battery-caged chicks. Those hatcheries “kill the male chicks upon hatching – more than 200 million each year.”
  • Cage-free chicks have “part of their beaks burned off, a painful mutilation.”
  • When transported long distances to slaughter plants, they often have “no food or water.”
  • Some cage-free producers starve their chickens to force them to molt.

The Humane Society makes the following conclusion.

While cage-free does not necessarily mean cruelty-free, cage-free hens generally have significantly better lives than those confined in battery cages. The ability to lay their eggs in nests, run and spread their wings are tangible benefits that shouldn't be underestimated.

I think it’s important to understand what cage-free means. When news outlets are reporting that Burger King is switching to cage-free eggs by 2017, the public should understand that while this is a positive step in reducing the amount of cruelty the birds suffer, it isn’t guaranteeing cruelty-free conditions.

I haven’t done any research yet what it means for the pigs that will no longer be raised in gestation crates, but I suspect I’d find something similar — improved conditions, but not humane ones.

Burger King deserves some credit for moving in the right direction when it comes to the treatment of some of the animals raised for their food. (I say some because their main business is burgers, and there was no mention of cows in the announcement this week.) The company shouldn't stop making improvements, though. There are still many steps that need to be taken to guarantee that animals raised for food are kept in cruelty-free conditions.

What was your reaction to Burger King’s announcement earlier this week?

Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.

Burger King pledges to use cage-free eggs. What does that mean?
If you imagine that Burger King's cage-free chickens will be romping around the barnyard in the sunlight, you may want to change that picture.