'Watershed Moment': McDonald's Eggs to Go Cage-Free

Animal rights activists hail 10-year plan from fast food behemoth.

— -- In a major victory for animal rights groups, fast food giant McDonald’s announced a plan today to begin sourcing eggs solely from cage-free hens.

The full transition across 16,000 restaurants in the U.S. and Canada is expected to take around 10 years, as McDonald’s tries to revamp its image amid pressure from animal rights advocates and changing consumer tastes.

“Our customers are increasingly interested in knowing more about their food and where it comes from,” said McDonald’s USA President Mike Andres in the press release. “Our decision to source only cage-free eggs reinforces the focus we place on food quality and our menu to meet and exceed our customers’ expectations.”

McDonald’s is a major player in the egg industry, buying approximately two billion eggs in the United States annually and 120 million in Canada.

Animal rights activists are hailing the announcement as a “watershed moment” that will redefine standards in the egg industry.

“The magnitude can hardly be overstated,” said Paul Shapiro, the Humane Society’s Vice President of Farm Animal Protection. “It really shows egg producers that if they want a future in the 21st century, they’ll have to follow ethical animal practices.”

In 2011, an ABC News broadcast showed undercover video by animal rights group, Mercy for Animals, that showed unsanitary conditions and repeated acts of animal cruelty by some employees at one of McDonald’s major suppliers, Sparboe Farms. After allegations about Sparboe emerged, McDonald’s said that it would “no longer accept” eggs from the farm based on concerns about the “management of Sparboe facilities.” At the time, Sparboe said the employees seen apparently engaged in wrongdoing at the farm had been terminated and that the farm has a “zero tolerance policy” for such behavior.

With its announcement today, McDonald’s joins a growing number of big brand companies who have made similar pledges to use eggs from cage free hens, including Starbucks and Burger King.

Leah Garces, U.S. Director for the animal rights group Compassion in World Farming, said she hopes the trend continues.

“We have no doubt their announcement will create a ripple effect in the entire market,” Garces told ABC News in an email. “This signals the end of the cage age for laying hens in the U.S.”