Overnight Changes in the Industry
"These birds you can see as we're standing here are getting a lot more interested in us. They're starting to face us now. They're curious. They want to know what we're doing."
Back at the egg farm in Michigan, the team with McDonald's is looking back at the hens; they're checking how the farmers are complying with their new animal welfare guidelines. This is one of the keys to the company's program: inspectors from the food industry will visit all the operations that sell eggs to McDonald's, and they'll enforce the policies. One of the inspectors is Rosalind Zils.
Greg Herbruck holds one of the color coded inspection forms they use to see if they're meeting McDonald's guidelines. Photo: Daniel Zwerdling
McDonald's Inspection Form (PDF format)
View the inspection form that the Herbrucks use to make sure they're meeting McDonald's new animal welfare guidelines.
"The main thing I'm looking at," Zils explains, "I kind of take a long view down the middle of the aisle, if you can take a step to the left. I'm smelling things and getting acclimated to walking in here. I'm looking to see, are the birds eating? Is there feed in the troughs? What's the general condition right now?"
She says conditions on this farm have always been good compared to a lot of farms around the country. But still, these farmers had to get better. McDonald's told all their suppliers to take roughly half the hens out of the cages by January 1, 2002 so the birds have a little room to move.
That means that every farmer has to build more hen houses and buy thousands of extra cages.
"The next thing that I do," Zils continues, "is I start bird counts. We have a density requirement that each bird has to have 72 square inches. So I will come in and start counting the number of birds. In this cage, we've got five birds here and we're looking to see that the caretakers aren't putting an extra bird here and there without looking at where they're putting the birds."
And McDonald's told the farmers to stop so-called "forced molting." According to the guidelines, they can't ever take food away from the hens again. One of the scientists who helped write these guidelines is Joy Mench from the University of California. McDonald's asked Mench and other respected researchers to tell the company how to change. Mench says they persuaded McDonald's to ban another common practice: Farmers can't cut off the hens' beaks, any morethey can only snip off the tips. Mench is following Rosalind Zils to see how the inspection's working.
"What would you do if you found a certain percentage of birds, I mean what would be the remedial steps if you found a certain amount of beak trimming?" Mench asks.
"One of the things that we've worked on up front," Zils says, "is making sure the beak trimming is a very, very important issue here. If they had a bad beak program that would be almost a disqualifier from the get-go."
According to Joy Mench, if you were a hen, your life would be better now; there's no question about it but the industry has a long way to go. The farm tour is over now, and the McDonald's team has gone home, and Mench is processing what she's just seen. She says these birds still don't have enough room to do all kinds of things that hens like to do: they can't flap their wings, or preen, or even hop on a perch. "It bothers me, but I don't think we have a good alternative," she says and adds that researchers haven't figured out yet how farmers can raise hens more 'naturally' and still make a profit, except on a small scale. And she says McDonald's is just beginning to think about how they could improve the lives of other animals like the chickens that you eat, and hogs and cattle.
Mench continues, "But I think McDonald's is moving pretty quickly considering how major the changes are that have to occur. I really think that the best approach to this is to work with animal welfare scientists and to work with the supplier-producer community to see that everybody works together on the change."
Joy Mench has spent 20 years researching chickens. When asked to compare the changes in the last two years to the changes in the previous 18, she says "There were no changes in the previous 18. They've all taken place in the last couple of years. So after a lot of years of talking about it, all of a sudden it almost just changed over night."
And now the rest of the food industry is trying to catch up, which is just what PETA was hoping. Wendy's and Burger King launched similar programs, which they've modeled on McDonald's. And industry leaders say they're drafting guidelines that every restaurant chain could follow. There has been a shift in public opinion, one executive says. The entire food industry is concerned now about animal welfare.