As university researchers study the best ways to house America’s egg-producing hens, numerous organizations have signed on as coalition stakeholders, including the American Humane Association, American Veterinary Medical Association and U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service.

One prominent stakeholder may surprise you: fast-food behemoth McDonald’s, which reaps a nice share of profits each morning from scrambled eggs, Egg McMuffins and egg-based biscuit sandwiches.

It sure sounds good on paper: The eggs produced in the study are expected to be used in McDonald’s U.S. restaurants, as researchers strive to determine whether cage-free and free-range chickens fare better than those cooped up in factory farms.

Dan Gorsky, McDonald’s senior VP for North America supply chain management, says his company wants to consider “all of the sustainability impacts when it comes to buying eggs—not just animal welfare, but environmental, food safety and economic factors. It is our intention for eggs produced as part of this study, including cage-free eggs, to partially supply McDonald’s USA by 2011.”

Some critics, however, believe McDonald’s is dragging its feet in purchasing sustainable eggs. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) notes that numerous national restaurant chains have already gone the cage-free route, including Burger King, Wendy’s, Quiznos, Denny’s, Hardees’s and Carl’s Jr.

“There is already an abundance of science demonstrating that battery-cage confinement of laying hens is detrimental to animal welfare, and McDonald’s shouldn’t use another long-term study as an excuse to delay implementing the same modest reforms so many of its competitors have already adopted,” says Paul Shapiro, senior director of HSUS’ factory farming campaign.

HSUS is encouraging mainstream and organic consumers to call (800) 244-6227 to urge McDonald’s to switch to cage-free eggs now.

Photo courtesy of McDonald’s