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PETA'S War on McDonald's

Forget the image of scruffy protesters working out of someone's apartment. PETA started that way 20 years ago, but visit PETA's headquarters today.

PETA owns a sleek office building with huge windows that look out over the harbor in Norfolk, Virginia. There are muted oil paintings, charcoal gray carpets, and dozens of employees working their computers. When some of the staff gather to plan the fight against yet another corporation, they lay out the same kinds of strategies you'd use in a political campaign. They've become masters of the Internet.

PETA's headquarters is pet-friendly. Photo: Daniel Zwerdling

"One of the things that we can do is with our action e-mail alerts, we have more than 1.5 million visitors a month to the Web site."

"So people can go to the Web site, they can see the poster, download it and they can make it work in their community."

"It's activism made easy, just to be able to download. It seems that's how more and more people seem to be getting their information"

The record suggests that their tactics often work. PETA went after Calvin Klein for promoting furs, and he stopped. PETA attacked General Motors and Gillette for using animals in safety tests. Both corporations stopped. PETA's president, Ingrid Newkirk, says they eventually want the world to give animals the same rights as people, but in the mean time, they'll pressure companies that symbolize an industry to treat animals a little better.

"It was pretty easy to settle on McDonald's," says Newkirk, "because they're the giant of the fast food industry and their name is instantly recognizable all over the world and the number of animals that they use to go into those burgers and those Egg McMuffins is just extraordinary. So we knew if we could get McDonald's to change—which is no easy task—the other fast food restaurants might fall like skittles."

The way PETA saw it, McDonald's was vulnerable. Consumers over in Europe were all fired up about animal welfare; they were getting their governments to pass laws that told food companies exactly how to raise their animals. Industry officials back in this country warned that the movement was heading here. So PETA figured that McDonald's executives had a choice: They could seem to drag their feet on animal welfare, PETA would keep harassing them, and eventually lawmakers might order industry to change. Or McDonald's could lead the campaign for animal welfare and they'd impress consumers as 'The company that cares,' and maybe they'd head off legislation. Around three years after PETA launched its protests, McDonald's became the first major food company to tell farmers, "You have to treat animals more humanely." And McDonald's executives say PETA had nothing to do with it.

"No, I think exactly the opposite."

Bob Langert says McDonald's has been studying animal welfare issues for years. He says that McDonald's would have announced its policy even if PETA had never launched protests. "I think those tactics are not effective toward educating the public," says Langert, "As a matter of fact, they're not accurate. They tend to provide only mis-information that doesn't help the cause."

But sources in the business community say, of course, PETA helped the cause, if the cause is getting McDonald's to promote animal welfare. They say it's nonsense to say PETA was irrelevant. Industry analysts say that both sides should get credit: They say PETA pressured McDonald's at just the right time and the company's executives had the vision to act. Bruce Friederich, who led PETA's war on McDonald's, is now praising them:

"A corporation for the first time taking responsibility for the suffering of animals and it is a corporation on the size and scale of McDonald's so it is an unprecedented, positive move forward for animals in the United States of America. Up until the point of the McDonald's negotiations, no one in the mainstream, no corporations were talking about animal welfare in any serious way, the government wasn't talking about animal welfare in any serious way. It changes the whole societal discussion of how animals should be treated."

Next: Overnight Changes in the Industry

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