ShaRhonda Knott-Dawson, a west suburban mother of two young girls, takes her family to McDonald’s semiregularly because it’s an indulgence they all enjoy.
But she’s put those trips on hold for now. Knott-Dawson plans to launch an online petition this week in coordination with the nonprofit Compassion in World Farming to urge McDonald’s to switch to different breeds of chickens that would have an improved quality of life. The campaign also encourages McDonald’s to give the birds more space.
“I care about basic dignity for these animals. It’s just not right,” said Knott-Dawson, 39.
In total, eight animal welfare charities, including groups like the Humane Society of the United States and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, are turning up the pressure on McDonald’s, a national effort that offers a glimpse into the larger debate about how chickens are farmed in the U.S., and the role that major food chains play in shaping that debate.
Americans eat more chicken — 92 pounds per person in 2017 — than anyone else in the world, according to the National Chicken Council, a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying group that represents the largest poultry suppliers in the country. But the chicken meat they consume comes from birds that are heavier, and sped to market much faster, than in previous decades. Chickens in the U.S. that are raised for their meat, known as broilers, grow to an average market weight of more than 6 pounds, more than twice as large as in 1955, and the entire process takes place in 23 fewer days.
Animal rights advocates are pushing back against the trend, citing academic studies that show today’s chickens are grown so fast that they have trouble walking because their legs won’t support the weight, in addition to other related health problems. They also say today’s chickens are crowded into spaces that are too small.
Some food companies are paying heed. In recent years, more than 80 food businesses, including Burger King, Subway, Aramark and Kraft Heinz, have committed to improving the welfare of chickens and giving the birds more space by 2024, changes that drive up the price of chicken. But the long-term success of the movement hinges on what McDonald’s, which used 490 million pounds of chicken in 2014 alone, decides to do.
Executives at the Oak Brook-based fast-food chain say they’re not ready to commit to changing chicken breeds or increasing the amount of room chickens have without further scientific study.
“We’re not going to do that haphazardly or because someone’s knocking on our door asking us to do that. These are industry-changing decisions and we don’t take them lightly,” said Marion Gross, McDonald’s senior vice president of supply chain management for North America.
Animal welfare groups say that McDonald’s, by not lending its global presence and buying power to the movement, is halting progress and making it hard to encourage meaningful change in the poultry industry.
“I recognize that it’s going to be a challenge. But it’s not acceptable to say that it’s too hard, so we’re going to keep treating animals cruelly,” said Leah Garces, U.S. executive director for Compassion in World Farming.
The National Chicken Council says it’s committed to improving chicken welfare, but warns of increased costs and environmental impacts if the industry shifts toward slower-growing chickens.
If one-third of the broiler chicken producers in the U.S. switched to slower-growing breeds, about 1.5 billion more chickens would be needed annually to produce the same amount of meat, according to a study released by the trade group last year. Birds that live longer would require more feed and water.
“It has been well-documented that a 100 percent shift to slower-growing breeds and decreased stocking density would have negative trade-offs for the environment and increased prices for chicken, without the assurance of better welfare outcomes for the birds,” Tom Super, spokesman for the National Chicken Council, said in an email.
Kenneth Koelkebeck, a poultry expert at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, doesn’t think faster-growing birds automatically represent a step back in animal welfare. Koelkebeck believes the commitments McDonald’s has made to chicken welfare are, on the whole, positive for the industry and for the birds.
“It all boils down to the management of the birds. Yes, they’re growing at a fast rate, but they can be managed,” Koelkebeck said.
But some chicken suppliers, such as Perdue Farms and Wayne Farms, are already preparing to meet the increased demand for alternative breeds.
Perdue’s Bruce Stewart-Brown believes better animal welfare also means better quality meat, a view not held universally in the poultry industry.
But there is a cost to shifting the focus away from maximum efficiency and productivity, said Stewart-Brown, Perdue’s senior vice president of food safety, quality and live operations. Increasing the amount of space for each bird will require more chicken houses and the industry will have to pay farmers more per pound, because they’ll produce less out of each house, he said.
“We will have those products in the marketplace and people can vote. Companies can vote,” Stewart-Brown said. “It will grow as consumer demand prefers.”
In October, McDonald’s announced a chicken welfare policy that made no specific commitments to change the breeds it uses.
The fast food giant, however, committed to taking other steps, including requiring enhanced chicken houses with perches; requiring the chickens it uses to be slaughtered using a gas-stunning method considered more humane; and establishing third-party audits of supplier farms.
McDonald’s also plans to work with its supply chain partners, which include companies like Tyson and Cargill, to study alternative breeds of chickens that might produce better welfare outcomes and fewer health problems, Gross said. The company’s study also will examine how much space each bird is allotted and associated costs with making major changes.
More recently, McDonald’s also announced it was convening a global chicken advisory council with industry and academic experts.
Temple Grandin, a well-known advocate for the humane treatment of animals, voiced her support when McDonald’s announced its policy and will serve on the company’s chicken council. Grandin has partnered with McDonald’s on various animal welfare issues since the 1990s and acknowledged she’s paid by McDonald’s for her work with the company.
Grandin said she believes in the company’s intentions to improve welfare.
“All I’m going to say about McDonald’s (chicken welfare policy) is that it’s a very good first step and Rome wasn’t built in a day,” said Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University.
Animal welfare groups are not satisfied with McDonald’s commitments so far.
“Agreeing to study something is the hallmark of doing nothing,” said David Coman-Hidy, executive director of The Humane League. “Study needs to be paired with a meaningful commitment.”
Studies have found that many fast-growing broiler chickens have difficulty walking because their legs and joints can’t support the rapid weight gain. One 2008 study assessed the walking ability of 51,000 broiler chickens and found that more than 27 percent showed poor mobility.
The animal welfare groups are calling on McDonald’s and other companies to transition by 2024 to breeds of birds approved by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, an animal welfare charity based in the United Kingdom, or the Global Animal Partnership, an Austin, Texas-based nonprofit launched but no longer directly funded by Whole Foods Market.
The groups also are asking for more space per bird than described in tnational guidelines established by the National Chicken Council.
Other animal welfare groups calling on McDonald’s to take bolder steps regarding chicken welfare include Animal Equality, Compassion Over Killing, Mercy for Animals and World Animal Protection.
Though united in this cause, the groups operate differently. Some — like The Humane League and Mercy for Animals — are more grass-roots groups known for in-your-face tactics. Others, like Compassion in World Farming and the Humane Society of the United States, work with corporations in boardrooms to influence policy and effect change.
In recent years, McDonald’s has worked hand-in-hand with some of those groups in crafting animal welfare policies, such as when committing to ending the use of gestation crates for pigs in the U.S. and sourcing eggs only from cage-free hens in the U.S. and Canada.
But the company has shifted toward developing global policies — a vexing development for animal welfare charities hoping to see swifter change in the U.S. poultry industry.
“This has been such a disappointing process because we have previously made such historic announcements together,” said Josh Balk, vice president of farm animal protection for the Humane Society.