Taco Bell vies to be early bird in cage-free egg switch

Last Updated Nov 16, 2015 5:48 PM EST

Up until this week, Taco Bell was the only major fast-food brand without a public strategy for shaking up its food sourcing. That changed Monday, with the chain not only switching to cage-free eggs, but jumping ahead of McDonald's (MCD), Burger King, Starbucks (SBUX) and others in the speed at which it's making the move.

"After several years of planning, the brand expects to be the first national quick-service restaurant to completely implement the change," the fast-food chain said in announcing that its nearly 6,000 U.S. restaurants would only serve eggs produced by cage-free hens by the end of 2016. "According to the Humane Society of the United States, approximately 500,000 hens each year will benefit from this change," the company said in a release.

And, the chain repeated that it would eliminate artificial flavors and colors, added trans fat, high fructose corn syrup, and unsustainable palm oil from its core menu items by the start of next year.

Taco Bell is among fast-food chains owned by Yum! Brands (YUM), which also operates Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken. All three brands -- along with a slew of their competitors -- were knocked in a September report from Consumers Union, Center for Food Safety and four other groups for their sourcing practices.

The move was applauded by animal-welfare group including Compassion in World Farming USA, which had launched an online petition urging the company to go cage free. In making its announcement Monday, Taco Bell responding directly to the campaign in a reply posted on change.org.

Josh Balk, senior food policy director at The Humane Society, said cage-free eggs cost about a penny more per egg to produce, citing a University of California study. "Of course, that's just what the study determined it should cost, not what the producers are charging for them," he added.

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.

Earlier this month, Panera Bread (PNRA) committed to using solely cage-free eggs as of 2020, with Starbucks also giving itself five years to realize the goal. McDonald's, the nation's biggest egg purchaser, has vowed to be cage-free in a decade, and Dunkin' Donuts in March said 10 percent of eggs used in its breakfast sandwiches would be cage-free by the end of next year. Burger King has committed to only using cage-free eggs by 2017.

Panera, which runs nearly 2,000 restaurants, said in its announcement that it was making good on other animal-welfare goals, with all of its pork coming from pigs produced without gestation crates as of this year, almost all of its beef, or 89 percent, grass fed and free range, and all of its poultry antibiotics-free.