Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Burger King: It Takes Bold Hearts To Reform A Whopper Of An Industry

via Swanton Pacific Ranch
It's not a big move--not yet--but it's a bold one:

In what animal welfare advocates are describing as a “historic advance,” Burger King, the world’s second-largest hamburger chain, said yesterday that it would begin buying eggs and pork from suppliers that did not confine their animals in cages and crates.

The company said that it would also favor suppliers of chickens that use gas, or “controlled-atmospheric stunning,” rather than electric shocks to knock birds unconscious before slaughter. It is considered a more humane method, though only a handful of slaughterhouses use it.

The goal for the next few months, Burger King said is for 2 percent of its eggs to be “cage free,” and for 10 percent of its pork to come from farms that allow sows to move around inside pens, rather than being confined to crates. The company said those percentages would rise as more farmers shift to these methods and more competitively priced supplies become available.

The cage-free eggs and crate-free pork will cost more, although it is not clear how much because Burger King is still negotiating prices, Steven Grover, vice president for food safety, quality assurance and regulatory compliance, said. Prices of food at the chain’s restaurants will not be increased as a result.

While Burger King’s initial goals may be modest, food marketing experts and animal welfare advocates said yesterday that the shift would put pressure on other restaurant and food companies to adopt similar practices.

“I think the whole area of social responsibility, social consciousness, is becoming much more important to the consumer,” said Bob Goldin, executive vice president of Technomic, a food industry research and consulting firm. “I think that the industry is going to see that it’s an increasing imperative to get on that bandwagon.”

Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States, said Burger King’s initiatives put it ahead of its competitors in terms of animal welfare.

“That’s an important trigger for reform throughout the entire industry,” Mr. Pacelle said.

This is very good news, I believe. I haven't eaten red meat since 1981, but like many semi-vegetarian parents, I do allow the lads to indulge in the occasional Kids' Meal (we ask for cheeseburgers with no meat) when the accompanying toy is a must-have Star Wars something-or-other. And okay, even I've been known to give in to the odd hangover-inspired craving for those salty, greasy fries at Mickey D's. But I've long felt guilty for supporting these fast-food restaurants, knowing as I do that they're among the biggest supporters of factory-farming, a high-density method of raising livestock that values quantity (of meat produced) over quality (of the animals' lives, not to mention the taste and safety of the product itself).

Factory farms confine pregnant sows in horrible, claustrophobic gestation crates, causing both physical and psychological harm to the animals. Factory farms, who in general confine large numbers of all sorts of animals into tiny spaces, give their livestock antibiotic-laced feed, a practice that is increasingly coming under fire for its contributions to the Superbug syndrome. Factory farms fatten animals with corn, which practice alters the pH of cows' guts, causing proliferations of especially virulent strains of deadly E. coli in the animals' waste, at levels not seen in the waste of animals who graze outside. Factory farms translate to miserable lives for the creatures who die to put food on the table for most Americans.

But until recently, free-range meats and poultry could only be found at pricey health-food stores. These days, I'm seeing whole sections of freezers in plain old supermarkets devoted to free-range goods--even in behind-the-times Florida--and while the prices are still higher than those of factory-farmed meats, customers are, in ever-greater numbers, buying the products and asking for more. Clearly Burger King and other large restaurant chains have been paying attention to the increased demand. We can attribute their shift in purchasing policy to newfound awareness about the sentience of all living creatures--and I do think an increased awareness of humane alternatives to factory farming played a big part in their decision--but we must remember that significant consumer demand within a growing market segment is what ultimately brought about this sea change.

We became more educated and aware; we stopped eating meat altogether or started buying humanely raised products whenever practical and possible (not to mention affordable); we began asking questions: instead of Where's the beef, we wanted to know Where's the beef coming from?

I'll still order my cheeseburgers minus-the-burger, please, but knowing my money is going to a business that is at least making an effort to lead the industry in a new and humane direction will certainly put a smile on my face, even when I'm whispering my Sunday Morning Fries of Regret order into the drive-through microphone.

Also at Shakes' place.

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