How McDonald’s acts now will set the agenda for the future of these birds for years to come.
McDonald’s has gone great lengths to paint itself as an ethical company in recent years. But does it need a refresher animal welfare course?
Keith Kenny is McDonald’s Vice President, Sustainability. He has been working for McDonald’s for nearly 30 years.
As part of this role, he is responsible for ensuring products are responsibly sourced, and that the company’s policies and business practices align in order to have a positive impact on society.
In a recent post on the business networking site LinkedIn, he said: "Given our size and reach as the world’s largest restaurant company, McDonald’s has the responsibility and opportunity to take action on some of the most pressing social and environmental challenges in the world today."
Keith Kenny and other McDonald’s executives hold a great deal of power over the present and future global agricultural landscape.
And indeed, the company has gone great lengths to appear ethical in recent years, using only free-range eggs and organic milk, and phasing out the use of plastic straws in the UK.
These efforts can only be lauded. However, the company's attempts to position itself as an industry leader for sustainability and animal welfare truly feel like a slap in the face for those who care about animals, when you consider that it refuses to take meaningful action on the most pressing animal welfare issue of our time. McDonald’s still uses supersized chickens who grow so big, so fast, their bodies can't keep up.
This is a chicken who has been bred to suffer, for the sake of producing as much meat as possible, as fast as possible. At every stage of his short, miserable life, he will be subject to a whole host of welfare issues.
With fast growth, he’ll be so top-heavy that his legs are weak. He will probably struggle to walk, suffering from pain, lameness and decreased energy levels.
You’ll see him sitting down to ‘rest’ most of the time, rendered practically immobile, but this is not normal. Young chickens are playful and inquisitive, and should be actively foraging and scratching for food for a large part of the day. They are also highly intelligent, despite common misconceptions.
Chickens bred in this way often develop Green Muscle Disease and Wooden Breast Syndrome. In the former, the cells of the breast muscle become necrotic and die from lack of blood supply to the muscle fibres, creating areas of green, unsightly flesh that is dead and decaying.
In the latter, the breast becomes tough and wood-like. This is linked to the fast growth of the breast muscle. This barely scratches the surface in the long list of severe problems with fast-growth breeds of chicken, but it can’t be denied that it is profitable.
McDonald’s says it cares about chicken welfare. In the stock response it has been sending out to every enquiry about this subject, it claims it requires its suppliers to provide enrichment such as items for the birds to perch and peck on.
If their bodies render them so immobile they can barely walk, you have to ask yourself, can these birds make meaningful use of these enrichments? Are they really going to be flying up on to a perch or hopping on a bale of hay?
Over one billion chickens are reared for meat in the UK every year. That number is seven billion for the EU, and worldwide, the number is almost unfathomable: over 65 billion.
McDonald’s sources chickens from the UK, the EU, Brazil and Thailand. How McDonald’s acts now will set the agenda for the future of these birds for years to come.
Meanwhile, Francesca DeBiase, the company's Global Chief Supply Chain and Sustainability Officer, writes in Brink, a publication covering risk for investors and businesses, about land management and offsetting carbon emissions.
In the face of the immense suffering endured by the millions of chickens in McDonald's supply chains, this feels like an astounding double-standard.
Companies such as Burger King and Subway in the US have committed to move away from these frankenbird breeds. In the UK, Prezzo, ASK Italian, and Pret a Manger have done the same.
Lack of supply is not a valid argument, since 2 Sisters—the UK’s biggest producer of chicken—has pledged to supply chicken with higher standards to any company which asks for it.
According to McDonald’s, chicken is now more popular than beef at its restaurants. Maybe that’s why it is unwilling to make meaningful changes for the most numerous animal on its menu—chickens.
Or maybe it simply thinks that not enough people care about chickens to make this a marketable selling point, like with paper straws.
But people do care. They just aren't aware of the scale of the suffering. McDonald's knows this, and is exploiting it. McDonald’s, it would appear, is prepared to do the right thing, but only when it suits their wallet.
Perhaps we should give them the benefit of the doubt. If someone in a position of power knows how much pain and misery McDonald’s sourcing policies are causing, why would they not do all they can to end that suffering?
That’s why this year, as students of all ages return to study, we’re sending Keith Kenny to do some learning of his own. We’ve enrolled him onto a highly-respected, 6-week online Animal Welfare course, created by the University of Edinburgh.
We hope it will be a chance for Mr Kenny to brush-up on all the negative implications of fast growth chicken breeds like those currently used in McDonald's supply chain, and pass this on through the company. If you want to encourage him in his studies, visit www.imnotlovinit.co.uk.
Pru Elliott is Head of Campaigns for The Humane League UK. She has been working in the animal protection movement for seven years and lives in Cornwall with her partner and their rescue animals.