By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
More than 140 people assembled outside the McDonald’s at 3646 King St. on Sunday to protest the fast food giant’s animal welfare policies, specifically for chickens.
Protesters stood, shoulder to shoulder, in silence during the hour-long protest. Each person held signs displaying broad-lettered messages including, “Hey McDonald’s, cruelty won’t fly,” and images of dead chickens stuffed into Happy Meal boxes.
The protest was part of an ongoing campaign by a coalition of animal rights organizations, including The Humane League, Mercy for Animals, Animal Equality and Compassion Over Killing, that aims to get the McDonald’s Corporation to institute animal welfare policies that many of its competitors have already implemented.
“Right here, we have over 100 supporters calling on McDonald’s effectively to catch up with the competition when it comes to the treatment of animals, specifically chickens used in their supply chain,” Brian Alexander, director of corporate engagement in the U.S. and Canada for Mercy for Animals, said.
With the Animal Rights National Conference taking place July 25-28 in the Hilton Alexandria Mark Center Hotel near the McDonald’s, the timing and location seemed perfect for the protest organizers.
“Alexandria is a wonderful area. We’ve got a dedicated group of volunteers here, and we’re all here for a conference,” Chris Hendrickson, regional organizing manager for The Humane League, said. “We wanted to come together, bring all these people who care deeply about this issue, give them the opportunity to get involved.”
Since initiating a campaign to end battery cages – small wire cages used to hold egg laying hens – the coalition is now working to tackle the treatment of chickens raised and killed for meat.
“A few years ago, we saw an opportunity to move onto the next big priority, which are chickens raised and killed for meat called broiler chickens,” David Coman-Hidy, president of The Humane League, said. “That’s the ask we’re making of McDonald’s.”
The coalition is pushing for specific animal welfare policies that would allow for institutional changes in how corporations treat and source animals. These policies include giving chickens used in food production a healthy living environment full of space and light, enriching the birds’ lives by allowing for natural behaviors and curtailing harmful breeding practices.
More than 140 corporations, including McDonald’s competitors Burger King and KFC, have committed to the policies that the coalition is advocating. McDonald’s has not.
The main issue for animal rights organizations and their supporters remains breeding practices, and it is an issue on which McDonald’s has so far refused to budge.
“These birds have been bred to grow so big, so fast that their bodies literally can’t support their own weight,” Alexander said. “Many of these birds will not be able to walk without pain. They can suffer heart attacks, die before they even make it into McDonald’s chicken nuggets or chicken McSandwiches.”
According to a statement from McDonald’s, the company remains committed to the health of its birds.
“In October 2017, McDonald’s announced eight commitments to measurably improve chicken health and welfare outcomes across our global supply chain by 2024,” Angele Busch, a member of McDonald’s public relations and brand reputation team, said in an emailed statement. “To advance this work, last year we formed an independent Global Chicken Sustainability Advisory Council of diverse experts. Through these commitments, McDonald’s is using our scale for good to meaningfully impact issues that are important for people, animals and the environment.”
McDonald’s commitments include increasing key welfare measures and incorporating welfare enrichments like lighting and housing environment standards that promote natural behavior, according to the statement.
However, animal rights activists believe that McDonald’s commitment to the welfare of its birds continues to ignore the harmful breeding practices that, until restricted by internal policy, are industry standard. As of now, more than 300,000 people have signed a petition calling for McDonald’s to commit to better welfare practices, specifically better breeding practices.
“Ironically, McDonald’s was a real leader on animal welfare issues, in terms of moving the ball forward on getting
rid of intensive confinement,” Coman-Hidy said. “Now they are actively working against progress.”
Because of the Animal Rights National Conference, the protest at the King Street McDonald’s drew people from all over the world, from Alexandria to the Netherlands. Some protesters came with animal companions in tow to call for McDonald’s to make meaningful change.
Some activists expressed frustration over the company’s refusal to further change its policies.
“[It’s] really, in my opinion, quite pathetic – that they would place so much importance on money and profit that they would completely disregard even the most basic welfare improvements for its animals that are suffering their entire short existences to make McDonald’s, this multi-billion dollar industry, a few more bucks,” Sarah Weldon, an activist from Austin, Texas who was in town for the conference, said.
Other protesters, including Chris Schob, recognized that taking a personal stand against companies like McDonald’s isn’t always easy. It can be difficult to find cruelty-free restaurant options, Schob said. But with more companies adopting these policies, Schob said protests are a chance to educate consumers that change is possible and to teach corporate giants that change is necessary.
“The more that it becomes accessible to not hurt animals in your daily life, the more people are going to choose that,” Schob said. “And as more people choose that, that becomes the mainstream norm. I think these [ideas] are here to stay, and businesses should respond to it.”
Protests such as Sunday’s are changing the way many Americans eat. Examples include a rise in vegan diets and ballot items like California’s Proposition 12, a 2018-approved ballot item that established new standards for animal containment.
Standing silently below those famous golden arches, the protestors on Sunday called for an American dining institution, a symbol of American culture, to make a change to ensure that every meal is, actually, happy.
“We’re really asking them to live up to what they say they do,” Alexander said. “They have something called ‘Scale for good,’ which is specifically that their scale is so large that they can affect a lot of good in the world. We’d like them to use that scale for good, for the good of the chickens in their supply chain.”