More companies are demanding suppliers move away from raising chickens in battery cages like those above, but the alternatives may not be much better. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

The conga line of restaurants switching to cage-free eggs is growing longer. While a wide range of chains have all said they will switch to cage-free eggs at some time in the distant future -- McDonald's (NYSE:MCD) is committed to going cage-free at its 16,000 restaurants within 10 years -- Taco Bell just announced it was jumping to the head of the line by promising to fully move away from cage-laid eggs by the start of 2017.

Taco Bell owner Yum! Brands (NYSE:YUM) was recently lampooned by The Washington Post for being "the only major fast food company that refuses to fix how it gets its food," along with its sister restaurants KFC and Pizza Hut, so the announcement allows the chain to improve its standing with customers concerned about the welfare of animals that ultimately become our dinner. 

Ruffling some feathers
But while chickens raised in a cage-free environment sound like they're better off than those housed in battery cages, and free-range chickens sound even better still, the reality is apparently a lot different. Animal rights activists would contend that what these companies going cage-free are doing amounts to little more than greenwashing animal husbandry.

Each year increasing numbers of companies report on their stewardship of environmental, social, and governance issues. According to The Wall Street Journal, 75% of the companies that comprise the S&P 500 produced sustainability reports this year, up from just 20% in 2011. And while some companies have the ability to dramatically effect change by the choices they make, others seem to simply go through the motions and appear more motivated to make only superficial changes.

Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT), for example, because of the sway it holds over suppliers, and despite its status as a corporation activists love to hate, can cause a sea change in industry practices by simply mandating vendors follow certain procedures.

In its 2015 global responsibility report, it noted it collaborated with the Environmental Defense Fund on projects that removed more than 17.4 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions from its supply chain by the end of last year, and it's looking to reduce 11 million metric tons more by establishing partnerships with 17 suppliers on 23 million acres of land to use fertilizers and water more efficiently. 

That's real, tangible change being made. But cage-free eggs? Not so much.

Chickens coming home to roost
Animal protection organization Farm Sanctuary says 95% of all egg-laying chickens are housed in battery cages, crates that can hold five to 10 birds wing-to-beak for the entirety of their comparatively short, brutish lives on factory farms. Because of the close quarters they exist in, the chickens lose their feathers, develop sores, and live dramatically shorter lives: just one to two years compared to the expected five to eight years for other industry-bred chickens.  

Cage-free chickens still live beak-to-wing alongside other chickens, with little hope of ever getting outside. Image source: Earth Song Farm.

So freeing them from that harsh existence, letting them be cage-free, is an improvement, but not by much. Although it assuages the guilt many might otherwise feel at supporting such breeding practices, industrial egg production still results in hens living in crowded warehouse conditions and rarely seeing the outside world.

Free-range chickens aren't much better off. According to the animal rights folks at PETA, the spokesman for the National Chicken Council was quoted as saying, "If you go to a free-range farm and expect to see a bunch of chickens galloping around in pastures, you're kidding yourself."

A call to action
That's not to minimize the real improvements being made in animal welfare. As corporations turn their focus on such husbandry practices, gains are made in how the animals are raised. After meatpackers like Cargill complained about the effects the steroid-like drug Zilmax had on cows injected with it prior to being led to slaughter, Tyson Foods (NYSE:TSN) said it would stop buying such cattle.

Similarly, Tyson told U.S. cattlemen they were going to have abide by animal welfare rules because it was coming under pressure from the likes of McDonald's and other companies to change its ways. That kind of pressure has also led to gestation cages for hogs being phased out.

Still, change takes time. Taco Bell is able to switch more quickly to cage-free eggs than McDonald's can because it uses just 130 million eggs each year compared to the burger joint cracking 2 billion eggs annually.

It's unrealistic to expect that chains using that many eggs can ever hope to fully source that many chickens in a truly humane manner, like some farm version of Juan Valdez studiously poring over each coffee bean he carefully places in his pouch.

Yet just because cage-free eggs are a small step above battery cages, it doesn't follow that companies should be allowed to tint their practices green because of public ignorance of industry terminology. As German statesman Otto von Bismarck is reputed to have said, "Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made." That would apparently include your morning omelet, too.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.