Taco Bell is the latest chain to plan a switch to cage-free eggs and may ultimately be the first big player to go fully cage-free, as it aims to use them in all of its U.S. restaurants by the end of 2016.
While it is early, for now the Yum Brands unit signaled that it does not have plans for a big marketing push around its food sourcing changes.
Monday's announcement from the chain of more than 6,000 fast-food restaurants comes after several operators set timelines for switching from conventional to cage-free eggs, which are produced in ways that give hens more room to roam.
"This is actually a complete switch for us," said Chief Food Innovation Officer Liz Matthews. Taco Bell has been buying conventional eggs from Michael Foods, which will still be its supplier. But it will work on building new barns and getting the necessary space for cage-free production. "We're listening to our customers, we're watching what's going on, and it really is the right thing to do."
The switch, which comes as the company continues to promote breakfast items like its A.M. Crunchwrap and Biscuit Taco, should not affect consumer prices, Taco Bell executives said.
Taco Bell also confirmed that it is on track for the "free-from" food plans it announced in May. By the beginning of next year, it plans to remove all artificial flavors and colors, added trans fat, high fructose corn syrup, and unsustainable palm oil from what it calls its core menu items. It also said that starting in early 2016 it plans to introduce aspartame-free Diet Pepsi products into all of its U.S. restaurants.
"The food conversation is at an all-time high," said Amy Kavanaugh, Taco Bell's chief public affairs officer. "People know more about food, they're interested in knowing more about food and they want that transparency from us."
Ms. Kavanaugh said to expect Taco Bell to have conversations about such changes "in distinctly Taco Bell ways," noting the brand's recent launch of the ta.co URL as an example of such a distinctive route to nutrition information and calorie details. "It really is about that transparency and making that available."
The company also still aims to remove additional artificial preservatives and additives, where it considers it possible, by the end of 2017.
Taco Bell's egg plan follows leaders such as McDonald's, which in September pledged to switch to all cage-free eggs in the United States and Canada but said it could take a decade. The process is set to be a quicker one for Taco Bell because it uses fewer eggs. Even before the October introduction of All Day Breakfast, McDonald's U.S. went through about 2 billion eggs annually. Taco Bell, meanwhile, only needs the equivalent of about 130 million eggs per year.
Once the switch is made, Taco Bell said its eggs will be verified as "American Humane Certified" according to the standards set by the American Humane Association.
A Change.org petition asking Taco Bell to only buy cage-free eggs had more than 166,000 digital signatures as of Friday afternoon.