US natural and organic foods retailer Wild Oats Markets has announced plans to avoid the sale of eggs from caged birds in all of its 75 Wild Oats Natural Marketplaces, located in 23 states.

"While some US companies, such as McDonald's, Burger King, and Wendy's, have asked their egg suppliers to increase cage space, this announcement makes Wild Oats the nation's first major chain to formally implement a cage-free corporate policy for eggs," the company said. Wild Oats sold 1.6 million cartons of eggs in 2004.

"Demand for improving the welfare of farm animals has never been higher," said Perry Odak, president and CEO. "We are hopeful that our decision not to approve egg farmers who use caged birds for our national and regional product lists will encourage the egg industry to move in the direction of phasing out its use of battery cages, and shifting toward cage-free methods that take the animals' welfare into account."

"Wild Oats has made a savvy business decision by positioning itself as a corporation sensitive to animal welfare concerns," said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States. "Socially aware consumers want to know that animal products sold at retail are produced in a humane and sustainable manner, and with egg production, it is well established that raising birds outside of cages is the most responsible production system."

Approximately 98% of eggs sold in the United States come from birds kept  in battery cages, according to Wild Oats. It is a practice that 86% of Americans surveyed by Zogby International find unacceptable.