WASHINGTON, Sept. 9, 2015 - McDonald’s says it will switch to cage-free eggs in the United States and Canada over the next 10 years, a decision hailed by animal welfare activists as a landmark move because of the company’s buying power. 

McDonald’s USA buys 2 billion eggs a year and McDonald’s Canada uses another 120 million. U.S. farmers produced about 87 billion table eggs last year, according to the Agriculture Department.

“Our customers are increasingly interested in knowing more about their food and where it comes from,” said McDonald’s USA President Mike Andres.  “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.

Just over 3 percent of laying hens are currently housed cage-free, according to the United Egg Producers. But California already has been pushing egg operations that supply that state to go cage-free because of a law that took effect this year. 

McDonald’s said research by the industry-led Coalition for a Sustainable Egg Supply figured into its decision. 

The McDonald’s move comes as the company is moving to an all-day breakfast menu and  as it tries to pull out of an extended earnings slump. The company noted that in 2000, it was the first major food service company to set a standard for hen housing that required farms to allow more space in cages for hens. 

The announcement also comes as egg producers in Iowa and Minnesota are struggling to rebuild their flocks in the wake of an avian influenza outbreak that has cut U.S. egg production by 10 percent.

“We’re proud of the work we’re doing with farmers and suppliers to advance environmentally and socially conscious practices for the animals in our supply chain,” said Marion Gross, senior vice president and chief supply chain officer of McDonald’s North America.  “This is a bold move and we’re confident in our ability to provide a quality, safe, and consistent supply.”

Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, called the McDonald’s move “a watershed moment in a decades-long effort to eliminate the cruelest confinement from our food supply. McDonald’s admirable move makes clear that egg productions’ future is cage-free.”

He said he is optimistic that McDonald’s will complete the transition to cage-free in less than 10 years. 

McDonald’s USA said it has been purchasing about 13 million cage-free eggs a year. 

The company’s new policy will force farms that want to keep their contracts with McDonald’s to remove the cages from their operations, which will reduce the number of hens that each barn can hold, said Ken Klippen, president of the National Association of Egg Farmers. 

Citing the work of the Coalition for a Sustainable Egg Supply, he said the shift to cage-free operations would raise consumer prices without making a significantly lowering stress on the hens.

“When egg farmers install cages in their barns, they expense the cost of those cages over 20 or more years.  That helps keep the cost of producing a dozen eggs down and helps the farmer to provide the best husbandry practices,” he said. 

(Updated at 2:30 p.m.)