Today Taco Bell announced a new menu initiative that may please its breakfast waffle taco fans: The chain promises to switch to using only cage-free eggs in all of its U.S. locations — that's more than 6,000 units — by December 31, 2016. Taco Bell joins McDonald's, Starbucks, Dunkin' Donuts, Panera, and others in its focus on using eggs produced by chickens that are allowed, at least some of the time, to roam free, outside of a cage. What makes Taco Bell's announcement particularly noteworthy is its timeline: It will become the first fast-food chain to implement the change nationwide. Other chains are rolling their programs out gradually, though many have made bold announcements in recent months.
Earlier this month, the Washington Post accused Taco Bell of ignoring the animal welfare movement. The paper suggested the company, owned by Yum! Brands, was using a supply chain shortage as an excuse for not adopting the use of cage-free eggs or hormone-free meat.
Perhaps in response to this, Brian Niccol, CEO, Taco Bell Corp. said in the company's official announcement: "We are a brand that has our finger on the pulse of not only what appeals to our customers' tastes but also the issues they care most about, and they tell us they want food that's simple and easy to understand. Implementing this change at record pace underscores that we are always listening and responding to our customers, while doing what is right for our business." Liz Matthews, Taco Bell's Chief Food Innovation Officer, explained the company's ability to move quickly on this initiative as a result of its "large yet flexible infrastructure, and years of close collaboration with our partners."
In a statement, the Humane Society of the United States' senior director of food policy, Josh Balk, said: "Taco Bell has catapulted itself ahead of other major restaurant chains. Switching to 100 percent cage-free eggs by the end of 2016 is a tremendous commitment that will quickly improve the lives of countless animals and further cement the future of egg production as being one without cages."
The Humane Society estimates that some 500,000 hens will be affected by the change as systematic supply chains work to improve conditions for egg-laying chickens. Taco Bell's eggs will be labeled "American Humane Certified" based on cage-free egg production standards set by the American Humane Association.
At this point, out of all of the eggs produced by the American food system, only 10 percent are currently labeled cage-free. Agricultural experts note that times are changing quickly thanks to consumer demand. Can the American farm system keep up?