Tim Hortons, the Canadian coffee shop chain looking to make deeper inroads south of the border, is under mounting pressure by animal rights activists to assure that its U.S. pork and egg suppliers adopt more humane practices.
The Humane Society of America said on Tuesday it will propose a shareholder vote in May on whether the chain should work to stop the practice of confining hens in cages and sows in gestation crates.
"When it comes to addressing cruelty to animals, an issue that American consumers feel strongly about, Tim Hortons is severely lagging," Matthew Prescott, food policy director at the Humane Society, said in a statement announcing the proposal.
In response, Tim Hortons said it was actively working with its suppliers to make "realistic long-term improvements" in animal welfare. It said it will provide an update on the initiative and address the shareholder proposal in the next month.
"While we are not directly involved in the raising or handling of animals, Tim Hortons has significant initiatives and procedures in place to make sure our supply chain practices are consistent with both regulatory and industry norms," spokeswoman Alexandra Cygal said.
The Humane Society can claim a string of successes in persuading the U.S. food industry to treat its animals more humanely.
Fast food chain McDonald's Corp said earlier this month it would work to phase out the use of gestation crates.
The Humane Society said 70 percent of the U.S. pork industry confines its pregnant pigs to the crates, which are banned in the European Union and eight U.S. states - including California, Ohio and Michigan.
Sows are often confined in the crates - which are typically too narrow to allow them to turn around - from just before the birth of their piglets until the young pigs are weaned months later.
Tim Hortons is focused on expanding in its "core" U.S. markets near its Canadian base, including Ohio and Michigan.
The Humane Society said it owns 130 Tim Hortons shares, just enough to submit the proposal at the chain's annual meeting.
Named after Tim Horton, a Hall of Fame hockey player who was one of the founders, the chain dominates the coffee and light-lunch trade in its home market, blanketing the country with its Spartan yellow and red stores. It says it brews eight out of every 10 cups of coffee sold in Canada.
The company is facing tough competition from McDonald's, which has been renovating Canadian stores, promoting its coffee and introducing espresso drinks. For its part, Tims has beefed up its menu with items like lasagna casserole.