Fast Food and Farm Animals(Archive)
In his acclaimed book “Fast Food Nation,” Eric Schlosser traces the industrialization of our food supply. Schlosser describes how the original founders of McDonald’s, Richard and Maurice McDonald, revolutionized the restaurant business and, in so doing, dramatically altered how our food reaches our plates.
The McDonald brothers brought factory assembly line methods to the preparation of restaurant food. They simplified their menu so that the only sandwiches they sold were hamburgers and cheeseburgers. They divided the food preparation into separate steps performed by different workers. This allowed McDonald’s to dispense with more expensive skilled short order cooks. It also increased speed, lowered prices and spurred sales. The brothers sold the right to franchise McDonald’s to Ray Kroc and the restaurant chain took off.
Soon restaurant owners around the country started to copy McDonald’s practices. Schlosser tracks the rapid growth of the founding fathers of the fast food industry: McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Diageo subsidiary Burger King, and Tricon subsidiaries Taco Bell and KFC. Today, McDonald’s is the largest purchaser of beef in America while KFC is the largest buyer of chicken.
The industrialization of food preparation has helped spread assembly line methods to the business of raising and processing meat. Just as the fast food companies have deskilled their operations to cut costs, so have the meatpacking firms that slaughter and process the animals. Meatpacking workers used to have skilled high-paying jobs; now they are low-paid and primarily migrant workers. The result is an industry of large slaughterhouses with little appreciation for the niceties of occupational safety or animal welfare.
The Chicken McNugget StoryConcentration in the fast food industry has also led to a similar consolidation by meatpackers. This in turn has given the meatpackers the power to dictate terms to the farmers that raise the animals.
According to “Fast Food Nation,” in 1917, the five largest meatpacking companies controlled about 55% of the market. However, in 1920, under the threat of anti-trust litigation, these companies signed a consent decree to end uncompetitive practices. The companies also submitted to regulation by the newly formed Packers and Stockyards Administration, a federal agency. By 1970, the top four meatpacking firms slaughtered only 21% of the nation’s cattle.
The industry changed dramatically under the Reagan Administration’s lax administration of antitrust laws. Today, the four largest beef meatpacking firms – ConAgra, IBP, Excel, and National Beef – slaughter approximately 84% of the nation’ cattle. (In August 2001, the chicken meatpacking firm Tyson bought IBP.) As Schlosser points out in his book, this constitutes the highest level of concentration in the meatpacking industry since records began.
One of the forces behind this consolidation has been the fast food industry. As the fast food chains have grown, they have reduced the number of their suppliers. According to Schlosser, McDonalds – now the largest purchaser of beef – has reduced its ground beef suppliers from 175 in 1968 to five today.
In his book, Schlosser neatly illustrates the power of the fast food industry over its suppliers with the story of the Chicken McNugget. “I want a chicken finger-food the size of your thumb. Can you do it?” said McDonald’s Chairman Fred Turner to one of his suppliers in 1979. This request set in motion the invention of the McNugget, a small piece of reconstituted chicken that is held together by stabilizers, breaded, fried, refrozen, and then reheated. Introduced nationwide in 1983, Chicken McNuggets quickly made McDonald’s the second largest purchaser of chicken after KFC.
“The impact of McNuggets was so huge that it changed the industry,” acknowledged the president of ConAgra Poultry. Twenty years ago most chicken in America was sold whole; today about 90% is sold in pieces, cutlets, or nuggets. To meet the demand, one of the leading chicken processors, Tyson, even engineered a new breed of chicken with unusually large breasts nicknamed “Mr. McDonald.”
Tyson now manufactures half of the nation’s Chicken McNuggets and sells chicken to ninety of the one hundred largest restaurant chains. The company’s size allows it to exert enormous power over small chicken growers. Tyson polices its suppliers feeding schedules and equipment upgrades. Its contracts are short term and thus easily terminated. According to Schlosser, contacts have in the past included provisions requiring growers to surrender all rights to file a lawsuit against Tyson and even forbidding the growers to join any association that would provide them bargaining clout with Tyson.
The meatpackers can also dictate terms to the beef ranchers. According to Schlosser, since the reconsolidation of the meatpacking industry, the average rancher’s share of every retail dollar spent on beef has dropped from 63 cents to 46 cents.
The Effect on AnimalsIn “Fast Food Nation,” Eric Schlosser visits the abandoned stockyards of Chicago whose well-paid skilled jobs have been replaced by meatpacking firms that now employ low-paid unskilled and predominantly immigrant labor. He reveals the unsafe and unsanitary conditions of today’s slaughterhouses that often abandon their workers injured and uninsured. He shows how our food supply system facilitates the spread of pathogens such as E. coli, listeria and salmonella.
The impact of the fast food industry has also been to set back farm animal welfare. Americans consume approximately 9 billion animals each year. For the most part, these animals are treated like inanimate objects as they are raised, transported, and slaughtered.
In the interests of efficiency, animals raised for food are denied most of their basic needs. Most animals are raised in severely restricted conditions. Calves are taken from their mothers within 24 hours and sows are kept in small stalls for their entire lives.
Animals raised in these conditions are denied the pleasures and natural behaviors of being able to move or lie down comfortably. They often have to endure the mutilation of their beaks, tails and other parts of their body. Many are subjected to noxious fumes. The sterile environment of these facilities literally drives animals crazy. The combination of these conditions leads to fighting between animals and stereotypical behavior indicative of psychosis such as bar biting and futile attempts to dig through cement floors.
Once grown, the animals are loaded onto trucks and shipped for many hours, or even days, to slaughterhouses. During transportation animals frequently suffer broken bones or extremes of climate.
In theory, once animals arrive at the slaughterhouse, they are protected under the Humane Slaughter Act. In practice, the act is for the most part not enforced. No inspectors stand at the point of slaughter. Birds are not even covered by the act.
What Can Change
Animal rights advocates – such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) – outline several inhumane practices that fast food companies could require their suppliers to stop over the short to medium term. Several fast food companies have already implemented many of these reforms.
Stunning of Chickens: Slaughterhouses tend to stun chickens with such a low voltage that the animals are not rendered insensitive to pain. Consequently, the throats of the chickens are often slit while the birds are still conscious, and many enter scalding tanks for feather removal while still alive. PETA advocates that, as a bare minimum, chicken slaughterhouses should raise the voltage from the average of 12.5ma. A voltage of 120ma would properly stun the chickens. A voltage of 200ma would be even better since it would kill the chickens and thus eliminate the most egregious abuse. In the long term, PETA recommends that slaughterhouses be required to shift to gas killing of birds, a far less cruel method.
Abuse of Caged Hens: Some chicken growers starve and dehydrate their hens for up to three weeks – a practice known as “forced molting” – to encourage another egg-laying cycle. Most cages restrict a hen’s normal head movement and are too small for a hen to stretch a single wing. Birds are frequently de-beaked with a hot blade to prevent them from fighting over space. PETA calls for a ban on forced molting and cages that allow hens to lie down and stand upright. In the longer term, PETA advocates for a phase-out of cages.
Poor Air Quality: Ammonia gas builds up in poultry houses causing severe harm to hens. PETA recommends that chicken growers adopt air quality guidelines for chickens that steeply limit ammonia exposure to ten parts per million.
Chicken Catching: Chicken catchers typically injure chickens often breaking their legs. PETA recommends an incentive program for chicken catchers that would reward workers who lower the incidence of injuries to the chickens.
Caging of Sows: The inherent cruelty of caging sows for their entire lives has already prompted many European countries to outlaw the practice. According to PETA, the fast food companies could buy a considerable and growing amount of their pork from producers that do not severely confine their pigs.
Branding of Cattle: PETA advocates for a prohibition for the branding of cattle, which involves giving third degree burns to without any painkillers.
Humane Euthanasia of Injured Animals: It is current practice for many slaughterhouses to cruelly drag animals from trucks when they are unable to walk. PETA advocates that such injured animals be humanely killed and not used for human consumption.
Auditing: Taking a practice from the anti-sweatshop movement, PETA calls on the fast food companies to use suppliers that allow announced and unannounced auditing of animal welfare standards supervised by animal welfare experts such as Dr. Temple Grandin.
Laws and Industry Standards: To help police their suppliers, fast food companies could lobby for the enactment of new laws and the enforcement of existing laws banning cruel practices. Trade associations could also adopt industry-wide humane farming standards. Both the National Council of Chain Restaurants and the Food Marketing Institute are already considering instituting such policies across the food service and retail food industry.
How to Change the Meat IndustryIn his biography of Henry Spira “Ethics Into Action,” Peter Singer chronicles the campaign in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s by Spira and other animal rights activists to eliminate abuses in the meatpacking industry. The campaign helped Spira reach a key realization. Spira noted:
There had been a lot of campaigns…and they went nowhere. The reason they went nowhere is that these slaughterhouses are not really concerned about the image they project. So what we did is, we went to some of their corporate customers and used that as leverage on the slaughterhouses.
Eric Schlosser reaches the same conclusion in “Fast Food Nation:”
The political influence of the fast food industry and its agribusiness suppliers makes a discussion of what Congress should do largely academic….And yet those companies must obey the demands of one group – consumers….The right pressure applied to the fast food industry in the right way could produce change faster than any act of Congress.
In this respect, the structure of the meat industry is very much like that of the apparel and footwear industry. Anti-sweatshop campaigners have successfully highlighted and helped change factory conditions around the world by putting pressure on the brand name companies and retailers that buy from those factories. Animal right advocates are increasingly taking the same approach: holding fast food companies accountable for the practices of their meat suppliers.
How Fast Food Companies CompareIn 1993, Trillium Asset Management filed a resolution on farm animal welfare at McDonald’s in collaboration with Henry Spira. The resolution followed almost four years of persistent effort by Spira to persuade McDonald’s to take responsibility for the practices of its meat suppliers. After considerable dialogue with the company, we agreed to withdraw the resolution in February 1994 after McDonald’s agreed to adopt a public policy.
McDonald’s first stated its policy in a letter to Trillium Asset Management. In the policy, the company asserted: “McDonald’s believes the humane treatment of farm animals, from the time of their birth and throughout their lives, is a moral responsibility.” McDonald’s reinforced that the company expected its suppliers to meet both the standards laid down by law as well as voluntary industry guidelines, such as those recommended by the American Meat Institute. At the time, Spira stated: “McDonald’s action is much more than a significant step forward for the world’s largest purchaser of meat products. It represents a fundamental breakthrough in corporate thinking.”
Despite his initial public praise for McDonald’s, Spira remained skeptical about how the company was actually implementing its pledge. McDonald’s did not make any substantive information available to the public. Following Spira’s untimely death in 1998, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) carried on the campaign. After a series of actions and meetings, PETA announced September 6, 2000 a one-year moratorium in its campaign against McDonald’s.
McDonald’s has taken the lead in the U.S. amongst fast food restaurants to help end abuse of animals by its suppliers. McDonald’s created the industry’s first independent advisory board on animal welfare issues to help the company’s continual improvement in this area. The board’s primary expert and auditor is the renowned Dr. Temple Grandin, whose recent report is published on McDonald’s web site. Dr. Grandin notes specific improvements by the company’s beef suppliers to ensure humane stunning of cattle. McDonald’s has also alerted its chicken suppliers to end the starving and de-beaking of hens as well as to institute minimum space requirements for hen cages.
Improvement remains a continual process. In a letter dated September 2001, PETA commended McDonald’s for its progress. However, PETA also expressed disappointment that McDonald’s had not yet extended its animal welfare standards outside of America, Great Britain and Australia or addressed the issue of inhumane chicken slaughter practices.
In the fall of 2000, Diageo subsidiary Burger King created its own “Animal Well-Being Advisory Council.” In June 2001, the company adopted guidelines and an auditing process that it claims adheres to the strictest industry standards for the care, housing, transport and slaughter of cattle, swine and poultry. Moreover, Burger King also adopted new guidelines for poultry that go beyond existing industry standards. Burger King has published the guidelines on its web site. Its initial audits are slated to begin by October 31, 2001.
As early as 1995, Henry Spira held meetings and exchanged correspondence with management of KFC, the largest buyer of chicken in America. However, Tricon, the owner of KFC and Pizza Hut, lags behind McDonald’s and Burger King in addressing the issue of farm animal welfare. Tricon Senior Vice President for Public Affairs Jonathan Blum told Trillium Asset Management in July 2001 that the company was forming its own farm animal welfare advisory panel. The panel is slated to first meet at the end of August 2001 and will probably formulate guidelines by the end of the year.
In 2000, Wendy’s instituted a beef and swine slaughterhouse auditing program that has been described as “one of the most comprehensive” by Dr. Grandin. PETA has pressed Wendy’s to address abuses such as the de-beaking of chickens, the intense confinement of sows, and inhumane slaughter of chickens. PETA recently suspended its campaign against Wendy’s after reaching an agreement with the company.
Pushing the Peanut ForwardA New York Times reporter once asked Henry Spira what he wanted as an epitaph. “He pushed the peanut forward,” replied Spira.
Spira’s campaign vision for reforming the meat industry is clearly achieving his goal even after his death. Spira’s notion of pressing the fast food companies to change their suppliers’ practices has resulted in substantive incremental change. Using his strategy, concerned investors and consumers can continue to push the peanut forward.
Thank you to Steve Gross, Brian Friedrich, and Sean Gifford of PETA for their assistance with this article.