Awareness of how animals are treated has quickly made the issue an important one for the most mainstream of brands.

Ethically sourced animal products have become staples at upscale retailers such as Whole Foods and among specialty brands like Martha Stewart (which sells turkeys raised in a “stress-free environment”). But this year awareness of and concern about how animals are treated has quickly made the issue an important one for the most mainstream of brands. Burger King recently announced it will use only eggs and pork from cage-free chickens and pigs by 2017; McDonald’s similarly pledged to phase out gestation stalls for pregnant pigs (although its board rejected a move to cage-free eggs in 2010). Smithfield Farms and Hormel have also committed to ending the use of gestation crates. The Kroger grocery chain is encouraging pork suppliers to end use of the crates, while Safeway and Supervalu have made animal welfare pledges. Many of these changes started with proposals from The Humane Society, the largest animal protection nonprofit in the U.S.

The trend is already well under way in Europe. The EU bans the use of gestation stalls, and in January a ban on so-called barren battery cages for chickens went into effect. Various brand initiatives are migrating out of the continent: In 2009, for instance, Unilever’s Hellmann’s pledged to use 100 percent cage-free eggs in its mayonnaise and other products in Western Europe, and subsequently expanded the policy to North America.

It’s unlikely we’ll see EU-style legislation in the U.S.—the Senate just rejected a Farm Bill amendment that sought to mandate cage size for hens—at least beyond the state level. (In California, it will be illegal to produce or sell foie gras, made from the enlarged livers of geese force-fed huge quantities of grain, as of July 1.) But brands will need to be much more transparent about their practices. For instance, our recent report on food trends spotlighted the “ChookCam” operated by Australia’s ecoeggs, allowing online viewers to watch the free-ranging hens. And those practices will need to evolve as animal-welfare issues start to weigh more heavily on consumer consciences.