From American RadioWorks®, the documentary project of Minnesota Public Radio and NPR NewsSM. On the Internet at Part of the story McDonald's New Farm: the Fast Food Industry and Animal Rights

April 2002

Cracking Down on Egg Suppliers

By Daniel Zwerdling

On the Internet at:

Animal rights activists have been warning for decades that America's farms are cruel. They say that so-called factory farming abuses the cattle and hogs and chickens that eventually end up on your plate. Farmers and food industry executives have generally scoffed. But now an unlikely corporation is surprising farmers and critics alike, by taking the lead in the campaign for animal welfare. It's McDonald's. As Daniel Zwerdling reports, the trend suggests that the right forces at the right time can prod even the biggest companies to change.

Into the Hen House

Until a few months ago, the executives who run McDonald's would never have let you pass through this doorway:

"Are we ready to walk in?"

We're about to go into one of the hen houses that produce the eggs that McDonald's turns into breakfast. And company executives know that the typical hen house in America makes a rather disturbing sight. But McDonald's is pressuring farmers to change things now, and the company feels proud to show what they've done. As we enter the building, it looks more like a factory than a farm:

"So what we're looking at here is a conveyer with the eggs coming out of all the chicken houses that are here currently. As you can see, the eggs are going over our head," Herb Herbruck explains, pointing toward the other side of the hen house, "but this conveyer goes that way about a thousand feet."

Herb Herbruck and his brothers run this egg business, on a country road in Michigan. They've been supplying McDonald's for years, and it's an incredible operation. As we walk along the conveyor belt, we pass row after row of shelves that reach from the floor to way up near the ceiling. Every row disappears into the distance, they're four hundred feet long. And every shelf is stacked with wire cages filled with snow-white chickens. Steve Herbruck says their cages hold 1.4 million chickens, to be exact.

"The floors that the hens sit on are slightly sloped about 6 degrees. So there's a natural gravity and the eggs then roll out from under the hens onto a four-inch belt. There is somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 miles of four-inch belts on this site."

You're going to have to imagine what these hens used to look like, before McDonald's new policies took effect. We asked one of the most respected animal scientists in the country to explain it. Joy Mench runs the Center for Animal Welfare at the University of California.

She says first, let's talk about the crowding. Until a few months ago, the family that runs this farm crammed at least eight hens into every single cage and each cage is about the size of a drawer—20 inches wide, 19 inches deep. Mench says this is standard practice—some farmers put more hens than that.

"When there are eight birds in a cage this size, the bird barely has room to stand," Mench continues. "And even then she's really compressed. There are a lot of birds pressing against her and turning around is really difficult. And a really important thing about this as well, probably one of the main reasons that crowded hens experience a lot of illness, is there's not enough space for all the birds to feed at the same time. If you're a low ranking bird—low on the peck order—you tend to get pushed to the back during feeding and you can't get enough food. So quite often the lowest ranking bird in that cage gets sick and dies."

Second, Mench says, the hens you'd see on most egg farms wouldn't have any beaks. The farmers cut them off, so you'd see a hen face with a stump. Farmers do that because when chickens get crowded together, they develop abnormal behavior, they can peck each other to death. But Mench says studies show that when you cut off their beaks, the hens suffer their whole lives.

"Chickens explore their environment with their beaks. They like to pick things up and that's their main way of exploring and touching and feeling things."

So cutting off their beaks is a big deal if you're a hen?

"It's definitely a big deal, " says Mench.

And Mench says here's another big deal: Most farmers take away all the birds' food when the hens are about one year old. The hens literally have nothing to eat for as long as two weeks. Industry researchers developed this method in the 1950s and 60s. The birds get all skinny and quiet, and they lose their feathers. Then the farmers suddenly start feeding them again; and it shocks the birds' system, and they lay eggs better for a while. The industry calls the practice "forced molting." Mench describes it from another perspective.

"The bird is starved? Yes, the bird is starved. I don't like to see hungry animals not being given food."

Swift Learning Curve

Animal rights groups have said for decades that methods like these are cruel. Farmers and industry executives have said for decades that the activists are kooks. So the agriculture industry was stunned recently when McDonald's delivered its verdict: The company declared that every farm that supplies its eggs must raise the hens more humanely. They gave farmers less than 18 months to comply. In fact, McDonald's told farmers they had to change by January 1, 2002, or the company wouldn't buy their eggs anymore—and McDonald's buys more eggs than any other company in America. The egg industry was furious. Industry leaders told McDonald's, "You can't make farmers change that fast," but McDonald's wouldn't budge. The brothers who run this farm don't want to talk about the conflict. They will say that they're doing what McDonald's wants and it's going to cost money.

"Well, any change is readjusting our entire system to adapt to it and understand it," Herbruck explains. "To take advantage of a change, if you can. And to deal with any negatives there are and restrict them. We're still learning. We're in a learning curve. This has been an ongoing effort to get better."

So can you give us a rough figure? How much have you had to spend so far to meet these guidelines?

"The project is still ongoing," says Herbruck. "We don't have any idea."

So far?

"A lot. Millions."

A McDonald's executive is visiting the farm on this particular morning, and he won't say how much the changes are costing his company either:

"That's proprietary, that's competitive information, so we don't release that information."

Bob Langert helped shape McDonald's animal welfare policies and put them into effect.

"Costs have not been a driving factor with this whole initiative," he says. "So I mean in terms of a framework, this all starts with implementing the best animal welfare practices, doing the right thing and cost is a part of the whole process, a part we're still trying to figure out. We'll figure this out in collaboration with our suppliers."

Why the Change?

Industry sources say McDonald's will pay its suppliers more money for their eggs, to cover the cost of these changes. Some estimate that it's going to cost McDonald's at least $10 million. In other words, the symbol of the fast food nation has decided to invest millions to make life better for hens.

Bob Langert says McDonald's new animal welfare policies won't seem so surprising if you realize that the company has always been willing to listen to critics and learn from them. To make his point, Langert takes me to one of the company's 29,000 restaurants to make his point. This one is in a Chicago suburb:

"Well let me kind of just show you how we brought the environment to life in our restaurant. You know, the normal customer doesn't really realize all the things we've done on the environment."

Remember how people used to nickname the company "McToxics," and the country was littered with their Styrofoam containers? Back in the 1980s, environmental activists approached McDonald's executives. The activists said, "If you'll stop treating us like enemies, we'll help you stop polluting, and your company will save money, and get good publicity besides." Langert says the project took off.

"So if you look behind the counter here," points out Langert, "for instance Happy Meals—you know the kids love our Happy Meals. Now look at this bag, what do you notice that's different about it?

"It's an off-white, it's a gray," he continues. "It's made from, you can see we label it—it's made with 65 percent post-consumer paper. We use the stuff that you put out on the curb—your magazines, your newspapers, that's what goes into making our Happy Meal bags. By buying it, we're encouraging more recycling."

Environmental researchers confirm that McDonald's has done more to recycle and cut waste than almost any corporation in America. Langert says when animal rights activists approached McDonald's in the early 1990s, executives were willing to learn from them. The activists told McDonald's about those starving chickens; they said slaughterhouse workers sometimes cut up animals while they're still alive. The activists told the company, "You need to take responsibility: force your suppliers to change, now." At first, McDonald's refused. Langert says don't get the wrong impression; company executives took the issue seriously. But, he says, a corporation can't change overnight.

"Too often I think outside groups are looking for a quick fix. A very quick fix. And a quick fix by definition is quick—it's not lasting. What really makes change—and this is something I've learned over the years—is getting at the heart and feelings and emotions of people we deal with. You know, we don't want to prescribe and dictate change. We want our suppliers, our staff, our employees, our owner-operators to want to do these changes—to feel it in their heart, their soul, and their belly. What you need to do is dedicate time."

So, company executives started studying the animal welfare issue, and talking with activists about it, and talking and negotiating. More than six years went by, the company was still talking. But then, McDonald's began facing other pressures.

Pressure from Protesters

Protesters: "Shut McDonald's down! Shut McDonald's down!"

The movement against globalization was taking off. Protesters wanted McDonald's to leave their countries alone. They firebombed its restaurants in Belgium; they set off stink bombs in Poland. Meanwhile, McDonald's business started to stumble, for various reasons. Competitors like Wendy's and Burger King chipped away at its market share; McDonald's profits and stock started slipping. And company executives started doing some soul-searching. According to industry magazines at the time, executives wondered how they could rejuvenate McDonald's and save the company's legacy as the most popular food business in the world. Just as company executives were mulling that over, the animal rights issue came back to bite them.

Newscast: "Animal rights groups say that McDonald's is serving more than just hamburgers and they claim it's distasteful. The group delivered that message at the drive-thru today."

The activists had lost their patience, and they declared war.

Newscast: "Two members of an animal rights group ordered chaos at this McDonald's drive-thru window. They chained themselves to the window blocking access for the noontime lunch crowd. The group was symbolically dressed in chicken and pig costumes."

You wouldn't think that protesters dressed like animals could have much clout against McDonald's. But there they were, on the streets of Salt Lake City. The year was 1997. Over the next few years, activists would be chanting at hundreds of McDonald's across the country. They said the farms that supply the fast food chain abuse chickens and other animals, and it was time for McDonald's to make them stop:

"Boycott McMurder! There's no excuse for animal abuse! Boycott McMurder! There's no excuse for animal abuse!"

The demonstrations were organized by PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Some remember them as a fringe group that hurls blood at fashionable furs. But this time, PETA protesters were passing out brightly colored cardboard boxes to customers heading for McDonald's. If you glanced quickly, the boxes looked like a McDonald's Happy Meal promotion: big cheerful letters, a drawing of the grinning clown; but then you looked closely, it read "Unhappy meal" and Ronald McDonald was swinging an ax. When you opened the box, you didn't find a hamburger, there were plastic animals painted with fake blood. The man who runs McDonald's denounced the protests as "tasteless and dishonest." But when the woman who runs PETA, Ingrid Newkirk, looks back on it today, she says McDonald's was on the ropes:

"Just the very idea that we had taken their trademark Happy Meal and converted it into an Unhappy meal frightened them. Suddenly they didn't want children coming near the restaurant where they would see PETA protestors standing in the kiddy playgrounds with the Unhappy Meal in hand. That sent a chill up McDonald's spine."

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.

"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."

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.

"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 more—they 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.