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June/July 2002
Would you Like Fries with those Lies?

The Satya Interview with Bruce Friedrich

 

 

Last year McDonald’s made the unprecedented announcement that they would establish animal welfare guidelines and hold its U.S. suppliers accountable for following them and terminate contracts with those who failed unannounced audits. This was largely in response to a two-year campaign that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and thousands of activists maintained against the fast food giant. Last month America’s largest grocery chain, Safeway, also announced its concessions to PETA’s demands for the more humane treatment of the animals who are raised in factory farms and whose body parts are sold in their stores. Last month McDonald’s shareholders voted on a PETA proposal to apply the animal welfare guidelines to its suppliers worldwide.

Bruce Friedrich is PETA’s Director of Vegan Outreach and is a well-known voice among animal activists. Bruce took a moment out of his busy schedule to talk to Catherine Clyne about recent developments in PETA’s McDonald’s campaign.

What has the relationship been between animal rights and McDonald’s?

The longest-running trial in British history—civil or criminal—was, as dubbed by the press, the McLibel trial. McDonald’s sued Dave Morris and Helen Steel, a couple of unemployed activists for the “What’s wrong with McDonald’s” flyer that they handed out [see interview with Morris in Satya, May 1997]. The judge’s verdict, handed down in June of 1997, held that in about half a dozen ways, McDonald’s was culpably responsible for animal cruelty. By the judge’s definition, that meant that any reasonable person would hold these practices to be cruel and abusive to the animals involved despite the fact that they were legal. The responsibility had to do with whether McDonald’s could prevent the practices of its suppliers, and the judge ruled that with regard to certain parts of animal agriculture, McDonald’s used few enough suppliers that it could be held to be culpably responsible for cruelty.

Tell us about PETA’s relationship with McDonald’s.
At that point we wrote a letter to McDonald’s headquarters distilling the verdict into the key issues, and we held press conferences around the country with videos of the “standard agricultural practices.” McDonald’s was doing audits of its cattle and pig suppliers and beginning to do audits of its chicken suppliers, but was refusing to give us any timeline for severing ties with suppliers who failed audits. McDonald’s just refused to do anything to improve life for even one animal. It’s sort of like monitoring how many people are speeding, but never giving a speeding ticket—it doesn’t give any incentive for people to stop. So we launched a campaign to try to push some things out of McDonald’s, throughout which we remained in contact with them, as well as with their animal welfare panel.

After about 11 months, McDonald’s agreed to an array of improvements, including an end to forced molting of hens, which involves starving the hens for up to two weeks to shock their bodies into another laying cycle. They agreed to audit all of their chicken, cattle and pig slaughterhouses, and to sever ties with any of the slaughterhouses that failed audits. Dr. Temple Grandin, [a humane slaughter systems specialist and a member of the McDonald’s animal welfare panel], told the BBC that she had seen more improvements during the campaign’s final six months than she had seen in her previous 20 years, which is significant because she had been working for McDonald’s on the issue for more than five years at that point.

So, would you say that a lot of it had to do with PETA?
Well, you know we don’t really care whether any of it had to do with PETA. Back in 1994, Henry Spira had gotten them to convene their animal welfare panel and start auditing slaughterhouses. We launched our campaign in 1999, at which point they had still done nothing. Then in early September, McDonald’s announced new guidelines with an array of improvements, at which point we got them to make some clarifications, including making sure that they were going to have independent auditors with regard to chicken cage space. McDonald’s is the number one buyer of eggs in the country. They moved from an industry average of seven or eight hens per cage, to a maximum of five hens per cage (last year, four undercover investigations found ten and 11 hens per cage, so the industry is probably lying about their average), and the death rates fell from almost 20 percent down to two or three percent per year. For those who are alive, that’s a significant improvement.

What kinds of actions were the most effective with McDonald’s?
That’s very hard to gauge, but I think it was public pressure and grassroots that really did it. The fact that we had hundreds of demonstrations in front of McDonald’s restaurants; celebrity involvement, which generated massive media interest; activists who were making phone calls and writing letters: all of these certainly helped. I think having people standing in front of stores passing out unhappy meals, holding signs that show [Ronald McDonald] done up like a Satanic bloody butcher, is probably not something a corporation wants to have happening. And McDonald’s was claiming that they cared about animal welfare, while they were being called on the fact that they wouldn’t even address the most egregious abuse, even if there was unanimity among their animal welfare panel on the issue. So they finally decided that they would have to make the change.

Tell us about the proposal that was recently voted on by McDonald’s shareholders.
The animal welfare plan of last year was groundbreaking in the U.S.—it was the first time any major corporation, or major entity period, had ever done anything for farmed animals. But after the Animal Alliance of Canada and a coalition of 40 animal groups contacted McDonald’s about making animal welfare improvements in Canada, we submitted a shareholder resolution calling on McDonald’s to internationalize its standards. McDonald’s then convened its animal welfare panel and talked about Canada and internationalization for the first time. In April they actually announced a farmed animal welfare program for Canada, clearly in response to our shareholder proposal, but it’s way too little, too late. It involves some audits but no plan for severing ties with suppliers who fail audits. It involves attempting to expand bird cage space, but no indication of what the likelihood of that is, or by when they will have that done. Nothing on chicken or pig slaughter, nothing on forced molting, and nothing on transparency—letting everybody know what’s going on.

Did you encounter resistance from McDonald’s?
[They tried to block our resolution from being proposed to shareholders, and we challenged them for the right to do so.] In early April, the Bush administration’s Securities and Exchange Commission [SEC] ruled with PETA. McDonald’s claimed that our resolution was redundant, but based on ample documentation, the SEC handed us a victory allowing us to bring the resolution—which was really quite huge, considering this is a Bush SEC. But it’s still far from being passed. We got five percent—millions of shares—which is a real coup considering the vitriol that the board brought to opposing the resolution. Now, we can propose it again next year.

But McDonald’s is still fighting it, right? If they were so interested in improving animal welfare in the U.S., why wouldn’t they do it internationally?
It’s perplexing to us especially because their claim is that they’re already doing it. I could see them opposing it, saying it’s cost-prohibitive, or because there are cultural issues that need to be respected; there are a lot of arguments that are somewhat tenable. But their arguments are [simply] lies—they haven’t already done it, we have their own paper trail to prove it.

Well, in the proxy, it’s very clear why the board suggested voting against this. Let me play devil’s advocate here. Their public relations vice president, Bob Langert, summed it up in the proposal given to shareholders last month, which I quote: “No longer are extremists driving the debate. Mainstream consumers are the primary force. Newspapers and television stations around the world have reported extensively on animal welfare campaigns and our company’s animal welfare standards.” Most revealing is: “Animal rights activists have not targeted our company in any concerted way since McDonald’s adopted guidelines and enforced them more than one year ago.”

Basically, they no longer feel pressured by activists, they’re not getting bad press, and it’s not in the public’s eye, so they don’t need to do it. What’s PETA’s response to this and where is PETA going with the campaign now?
Well, Langert hasn’t used that argument when we’ve talked with him, and it’s a strange argument to make, considering that we easily could re-launch our campaign against McDonald’s.

Is it a challenge from him?
I don’t know what to make of it. It’s remarkable to me that so many of these corporate public relations people seem to do such a bad job of public relations. We are talking about a corporation that had its last successful product introduction in 1983 with Chicken McNuggets, and thought it would be a good idea to sue two unemployed activists.

As you know, some Satya readers, taking an abolitionist stance, feel that any effort to change an institution like McDonald’s, which profits from animal misery, is wasted energy, or worse, part of the problem. What do you want to say to them?
I can’t remember the precise number, but something like 99 percent of Americans eat fast food; certainly fewer than one percent are vegans. I think that it does the animals a great disservice to put one’s personal purity ahead of having a practical, positive effect for animals who are suffering. If I were a chicken in a battery cage, I would want to move from an amount of space that kills a fifth of my bretheren to a space that kills one fiftieth; that is a real improvement in conditions. If I were a chicken in a slaughterhouse, I would want the “stun baths” turned up to a level that actually kills the majority of the animals who go through them, so that myself and others wouldn’t still be conscious when our throats were slit and we were scalded alive. Unfortunately, we aren’t in a place where the vast majority of people are on the precipice of going vegan tomorrow, and these are improvements that are necessary.

These campaigns also allow us to talk to people. What I’ve found is that people are really receptive to having conversations about egregious abuse of farmed animals when they don’t feel so on the spot; then you are able to point out that anybody eating meat, dairy or eggs is supporting animal cruelty. And once corporations like McDonald’s and Safeway are saying that birds have interests that have to be respected, that some of these standard agricultural practices are abusive, it really does beg the question in people’s minds—what are we doing eating these animals at all? I think that these sorts of campaigns, whether they’re one-on-one or grand-scale media interaction, they reach people in a way that a lot of other campaigns can’t.

Some people might argue that PETA spends too much time focusing on McDonald’s and promoting the BK Veggie burger and what not, when PETA should be encouraging people to support vegan businesses. What’s PETA’s response to that?

It’s interesting what becomes the public face of PETA. We have spent almost nothing on promoting the BK veggie; we certainly do want it to be successful, but the vast majority of what PETA does doesn’t generate media attention, so people often gauge ‘What is PETA?’ by what does get media attention.

We sent out about 150,000 free vegetarian starter kits last year and the most popular vegan video is our “Meet Your Meat” video, which some activists are now passing out on CD ROM. We don’t copyright anything. We encourage activists to take our literature, copy it and get it out there. In every instance our goal is to speak out for the animals who have no voice. We support anybody who’s doing anything to advance the cause of animal liberation and we do what we think is going to be most effective.

I haven’t seen anything that comes close to being as effective at promoting veganism or at actually saving animals from suffering as these campaigns. I’m sure you’ve heard that Peter Singer called the McDonald’s concession the best thing for farmed animals in the U.S. since he wrote Animal Liberation. I think that’s true both for the individual animals and for promoting veganism in general.

So, what’s ahead?
It’s tough to know for sure. We’ll continue to pressure McDonald’s to internationalize their standards, which would improve conditions for billions of animals, and shift the industry to follow their lead. We’ll attempt to reach out to Kroger and Albertson’s, WalMart and other grocery chains to make concessions similar to those that we got at Safeway, and we’ll continue to attempt to come up with new and innovative ways to promote animal rights. We just got the NCAA to stop using leather basketballs, which is pretty fantastic—you get just a few basketballs out of each cow, and they use a lot of basketballs. So we’re continuing to push forward in our grassroots campaigning, even as we attempt to work through legislation and direct, hands-on interaction with animals in all kinds of situations.

How can Satya readers help?
There are so many things that people can do to promote veganism and vegetarianism. There’s a “What you can do” section of goveg.com with suggestions like writing letters to local papers, passing out leaflets in front of restaurants, etc. But really all of us can take an hour and, instead of watching television, go and pass out leaflets. All of us can contact our local college or university and arrange to have people give talks or classes on animal rights. All of us can stand with a sign in front of any restaurant that’s serving meat, or design a banner and stand over a bridge during rush hour.

I’m very excited about the idea of taking TVs out to clubs or festivals or even street corners. I’ve been going out a lot with Compassion Over Killing’s FaunaVan in Washington, DC. People will take the information and watch the “Meet Your Meat” video and leave, some saying they’ll never eat meat again. In San Francisco, a woman with the Food and Social Justice project has a generator and a TV/VCR. In just four hours on a Friday or Saturday night, she passes out five or six hundred leaflets to people who would otherwise not have been thinking about this issue. So many things we can do don’t even take much time—carrying around PETA’s Vegetarian Starter kit or Vegan Outreach’s “Why Vegan?”, and leaving them on the train or airplane or wherever; people will pick it up and read it. You don’t even know what kind of positive effect you’re having without any additional effort.

I also really like that the Food and Social Justice Project in San Francisco is teaching cooking classes. One of the reasons people are not vegetarians is they get into a rut, they know how to cook the 13 meals that they base their diet on. If you could get them to switch a couple of vegetarian or vegan meals into those 13 meals, that’s a real victory, even if they haven’t gone completely vegan: it decreases the number of animals that are eaten, it decreases the amount of suffering for the animals.

To learn more about PETA’s work, to see what you can do to help fast food and grocery chains adopt guidelines for the humane treatment of farmed animals, or to order a free veggie starter kit, visit peta.org or call (757) 622-7382 (PETA). For a detailed account of PETA’s McDonald’s campaign, visit McCruelty.com.

 


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