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Chickens roam freely at an Egg Innovations farm in Warsaw, Ind., on Monday, August 6, 2007.

Sally Ryan/The New York Times

We expect big business to obey the law, not push society to higher ethical standards. But once a company like McDonald's decides to do just that, purchasing power in and of itself becomes a force for social good.

The fast-food giant is switching to cage-free eggs in its North American restaurants – a process that will sadly take an estimated 10 years, because 95 per cent of the eggs now produced in Canada and the United States come from hens that are confined in a cramped cage for their entire lives.

Egg producers and ethicists will disagree about what constitutes cruelty in the life of a chicken. But there is no question that the efficiencies of industrialized egg production severely restrict the movement of laying hens and deny them fundamental animal needs – such as flapping their wings, perching or nesting.

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The European Union banned battery cages in 2012, and a number of American states have legislated improvements to the tight confinement systems that are still the norm in Canada. Animal-welfare groups have been lobbying McDonald's to make this move for years, but the company's initiative remains a bold one, since it now must put pressure on the egg producers who constitute Canada's slow-moving supply-management system to change their ways.

Money is a highly effective form of pressure. And the timing couldn't be better. The Egg Farmers of Canada are currently updating their code of practice on animal welfare, and the housing of hens has become a key issue of contention. When an influential buyer like McDonald's asks for cage-free practices, it's hard to maintain the restrictive status quo.

McDonald's has more than just corporate heft on its side. Despite being a huge business entity, it's still a conduit for the feelings of millions of Canadians who may be reluctant to associate the pleasures of their Egg McMuffin with the plight of an immobilized hen. Everyday ethics in a fast-food world should not be underrated.

The company aims to be a responsive as well as responsible. But it is also making an argument about quality: An environment where chickens get to act like chickens could produce a better egg. Cage-free facilities fall well short of being free-range and are often overcrowded, but at least they allow hens a naturalness of movement and behaviour that will lower stress and improve health.

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