Panera Bread says its eggs will be cage free by 2020

ST. LOUIS -- Panera Bread (PNRA) on Thursday became the latest restaurant chain to announce plans to stop using eggs from cage-confined hens.

The suburban St. Louis-based chain said it will use 100 percent cage-free eggs in its U.S. restaurants by 2020. McDonald's and other chains have made similar announces in recent months.

Panera CEO and founder Ron Shaich said in a statement that the company has been working for more than a decade to reduce antibiotic use and confinement across its supply chain.

"While there is more work to be done, we are within reach of a menu without antibiotics and unnecessary confinement," Shaich said.

Sara Burnett, Panera's director of wellness and food policy, agreed.

"We think about this as being one way we can be part of a solution to a broken food system in the United States," Burnett said. "It's something that's incredibly important to us."

Some chains, such as Chipotle (CMG), have made animal welfare standards part of their marketing, prompting major chains to begin switching to cage-free eggs. McDonald's (MCD) announced in September that it will go to cage-free eggs in the U.S. and Canada over the next decade. Subway and Starbucks (SBUX) have also said they will make the change, though they have not announced a timeline for the transition.

Panera's announcement came as the Humane Society stepped up its campaign to get Costco (COST) to make a similar commitment, with the group's latest effort involving a video showing New York City's "most disgusting apartment" to draw an analogy to the quarters in which the hens laying eggs for Costco's shelves reside.

The warehouse retailer earlier this month said it supports the goal of selling cage-free eggs and is working towards it, but declined to offer a timeline.

In June, the Humane Society released undercover video footage allegedly showing mistreated birds and unsanitary conditions at a Pennsylvania supplier of eggs to Costco. A week later, the Humane Society in a shareholder proposal called on Costco to disclose risks facing investors from what it called "animal abuse issues within its grocery division's supply chain."

Panera operates nearly 2,000 Panera Bread and St. Louis Bread Co. stores, all in the U.S. except for 12 in Canada. The company said the cage-free commitment applies to shell eggs, hardboiled and liquid egg whites, as well as eggs used in sweet goods, souffles and dressings - all told, about 120 million eggs per year.

Panera said it is currently at about 21 percent cage-free eggs, up from 18 percent last year.

Josh Balk, senior food policy director for the Humane Society of the United States, said in a statement that Panera "is demonstrating that social responsibility goes hand-in-hand with being a successful national restaurant brand."

Panera has made other recent efforts to reduce confinement and use of antibiotics, Burnett said. The company uses 100 percent gestation-crate free pork. Also as of this year, all of its chicken and roasted turkey comes from animals raised without antibiotics, and 89 percent of beef cattle is now free-range, meaning the cattle can roam freely.