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Animal Welfare Means Breaking a Few Eggs

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Here’s something we wouldn’t have seen five years ago: A major egg supplier kicked to the curb by two of its biggest clients over animal cruelty charges.

brokenegg.jpgNo rationalizing, no deflecting the issue, no pending investigation. Contract terminated. That’s the action McDonald’s and Target took late last week after undercover video showed employees of Sparboe Farms, which supplied millions of eggs each year to the two companies, abusing birds by cramming them into cages, swinging them around by their feet and suffocating them in plastic bags. The stomach-churning footage was provided by the animal rights group Mercy for Animals, and it was broadcast to millions of people on Good Morning America.

Given the public outcry that ensues after something like this, a company has to move swiftly to protect its image. Mercy for Animals made McDonald’s the public face of its campaign, calling out its relationship with Sparboe through a dedicated website.

Yet there was more than just self-preservation on display here. The decision to lock out Sparboe sends the long-overdue message that mistreating animals is a zero-tolerance offense. Why it’s taken companies so long to get here is anyone’s guess. They’ve clearly realized a few things. For one, consumers don’t think there should be a price tradeoff for humane treatment. A survey conducted by researchers at Oklahoma State University shows 76% of shoppers consider the wellbeing of farm animals to be more important than price. As freshness, too, becomes an increasingly important value for retailers and manufacturers — just look at how many CPG companies are trying to storm the produce aisle — animal cruelty poses a threat to sales.

Most importantly, the food industry is starting to realize that animal welfare is a human health issue, as well. The Sparboe video shows workers removing the desiccated bodies of hens from their cages. That’s not just cruelty — that’s a contamination hazard, as well. Remember last year’s Wright County Egg recall? That stemmed from putrid conditions at the company’s Iowa facilities that went unreported for far too long.

Granted, retailers and restaurants should be more proactive in investigating the manufacturers they source from. Hopefully they’ll learn that lesson the hard way, as Target no doubt is given its current shortfall of eggs. Manufacturers themselves are doing the policing, in some cases, as this summer’s agreement between the Humane Society and United Egg Producers shows.

Of course, most shoppers could have told you humane treatment is good business years ago. Still, it’s good to see the industry catching on.

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