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Burger King's Less Subservient Chickens

It seems the king is granting more clemency for animals in its supply chain -- Burger King (NYSE: BKC  ) , that is. Like a growing number of companies, the fast-food giant said it plans to increase its focus on buying eggs and pork from cage-free and crate-free animals.

Burger King informed animal-rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) of its intention through letters, which the organization provided to the Associated Press. The company wrote that it has started purchasing 10% of its pork from suppliers that don't use sow gestation crates. It also said it will start getting 2% of its eggs from cage-free hens. Burger King plans to double the percentage it purchases in both of these areas by the end of this year.

The fast-food chain also has plans to influence suppliers by saying that it will look favorably on cage-free eggs when weighing its purchases, and also give preference to poultry outfits that use controlled atmosphere stunning to kill animals, the method that most animal-rights organizations consider the most humane.

It's easy to dismiss PETA as an organization with an extreme agenda, but on the whole, the concept of food ethics seems to be gaining popularity. More and more consumers are assessing hidden costs, including non-monetary ones, in their food choices.

Burger King is hardly alone in addressing animal welfare trends. Whole Foods Market (Nasdaq: WFMI  ) has long been a pioneer in trying to stock its stores with meat and dairy products from humane, organic sources. McDonald's (NYSE: MCD  ) has also been investigating animal welfare standards, as well as ways to pressure its supply chain to that end; apparently, Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT  ) is also interested. Pork supplier Smithfield (NYSE: SFD  ) recently pledged to phase out confining (and, many say, cruel) sow gestation crates on its company-owned farms. The move follows pressure from big retail customers, but it may also be spurred by the success of small pork operations like Niman Ranch that employ confinement-free pork production.

There are a lot of angles here, of course. Using organic, natural, and humane food choices may cost companies more money. Those higher costs are often passed along to the consumers who choose to pay more to eat this way. On the other hand, plenty of people don't care about such issues, as long as their food is cheap.

For people who do care, though, new policies like Burger King's may influence their buying decisions. If more consumers start thinking more critically about their food choices, the companies that address these issues will be better off in the long run.

Further free-range Foolishness:

Whole Foods Market is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation. Wal-Mart is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick. Follow either of the preceding links for a tasty free trial to our Foolish newsletters.

Alyce Lomax owns shares of Whole Foods Market. The Fool has a disclosure policy.

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