As of today, Burger King is calling itself the “first U.S. national chain to pledge cage-free pork and eggs.”
Never heard of “cage-free pork”? Neither had I. In fact, I’m guessing that the PR executives at Burger King may have invented it. There are cage-free eggs, yes. That term refers to eggs from chickens that are raised outside of tiny battery cages (the industry standard), but are still in confinement.
As the AP article makes clear, Burger King is referring to pork raised without gestation crates — a practice of confining pregnant sows to spaces roughly the width of their own bodies that has long been considered the worst of the worst when it comes to animal husbandry. So yes, the pigs will be free of a certain kind of cage, or pen. Does that mean they won’t live in concentrated animals feeding operations (CAFOs)? Unlikely.
No doubt adding in “cage-free pork” beside the eggs seemed like a nice way to streamline Burger King’s big headline. And like the term “free-range” (which itself has no legal meaning and is now used solely for marketing purposes), cage-free sounds so humane, doesn’t it?
Not that we can chalk this whole announcement up to humane-washing. To its credit, Burger King has attached a date to its commitment; it’s pledging to remove this type of pork from its menu by 2017. And in the race toward public approval, this means it has just broken ahead of McDonald’s, who made a similar announcement back in February but failed to attach a date, and instead offered the vague promise that it will “begin working with its pork suppliers to phase out the gestational crates.”
It appears that the company has also been working with the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) to craft this plan, which the AP says, “could represent a game-change in the egg and pork supply business as a huge new market has opened up for humanely raised food animals.” And it’s true. This could move pork and egg production a few steps forward in the rather broad spectrum of animal welfare. HSUS President Wayne Pacelle, who has no doubt been playing a carrot-and-stick game with the company for a while now, offered an optimistic take. “So many tens of thousands of animals will now be in better living conditions … Numerically this is significant because Burger King is such a big purchaser of these products.”
But is Burger King really the first to do anything? Well let’s take Chipotle. The chain doesn’t use the term “cage-free” to describe its pork, but that’s because it’s reaching for a higher standard. And while its terminology might seem equally confusing to the untrained eyes (it uses the term “naturally raised” meat, for instance, to describe what many now refer to as pasture-raised or pastured), Chipotle does actually buy what seems to be a good percentage of meat from Niman Ranch, Polyface Farm, and other decidedly non-CAFO sources. (Of course, that’s not to say Chipotle doesn’t have room to grow in other areas, like, say, treating its people as well as its animals.)
Semantics aside, it’s refreshing to see so many of these companies competing to be seen as champions of humane practices, rather than the place where you can “have it your way.” In the end, today’s headline says a lot about how far the Good Food Movement has come in recent years. And how much further we still have to go.