According to a story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the movement by U.S. food corporations toward more humane treatment of animals experienced a whopper of a shift Wednesday when Burger King announced that all of its eggs and pork will come from cage-free chickens and stall-free pigs by 2017. 

 The decision by the one of the U.S.'s largest fast-food restaurant raises the bar for other companies seeking to appeal to the rising consumer demand for more humanely produced fare.

 Burger King uses hundreds of millions of eggs and tens of millions of pounds of pork annually. Its decision could represent a game-change in the egg and pork supply business. Currently, 9% of the company's eggs and 20% of its pork are cage-free.

 The Miami-based company steadily has been increasing its use of cage-free eggs and pork as the industry has become better able to meet demand, says Jonathan Fitzpatrick, chief brand and operations officer. He says the decision is part of the company's social responsibility policy.

 “We believe this decision will allow us to leverage our purchasing power to ensure the appropriate and proper treatment of animals by our vendors and suppliers,” he says.

 Earlier this year, McDonalds and Wendy's announced that they have asked their pork suppliers to outline their plans for elimination of gestation crates without setting a timetable.

 The issue of the treatment of pigs raised for pork has recently developed. This year, Smithfield Farms and Hormel committed to ending the use of gestation crates by 2017.

 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% cage-free. Unilever, which uses 350 million eggs a year in its Hellmann's mayonnaise brand, is switching to 100% 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% 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.

Read the entire Star Tribune report online at http://www.startribune.com/business/148857895.html