McDonald's Corp., the world's largest restaurant chain and one of the largest buyers of chicken, is considering requiring its processors to use a more humane method for slaughtering poultry.
The hamburger chain said yesterday that it is studying a slaughtering method known as controlled-atmosphere killing, a U.S. Department of Agriculture-approved process that kills chickens by slowly replacing oxygen with argon or nitrogen in the air they breathe. The chickens quickly go to sleep.
The company said that some of its European suppliers already are using the newer method, which replaces one in which chickens, hanging from a moving conveyer line, are pulled through a vat of water that is charged with electricity. The electrical charge is supposed to stun the chickens before their throats are cut.
"There has been very little study of this process as to impact on animal welfare," said Bob Langert, McDonald's senior director of social responsibility. The company's animal welfare council suggested studying the newer slaughtering method, he said.
"We have been studying animal welfare issues since the middle 1990s. We led the way with humane audits of the slaughterhouses," he said.
The study came to light after People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals offered a proposal that would have been considered by shareholders at McDonald's annual meeting.
Instead of sending a letter saying the proposal would be included in the company's proxy statement, McDonald's informed the group that the company already was studying the issue. And the company said it would post results of the study on its Web site by June 30, "several months earlier than requested" by PETA, said Patricia Paul, senior director of corporate governance for McDonald's.
Bruce Friedrich, a PETA spokesman, said the group hopes that other companies will be forced to join McDonald's. The change will "alleviate the suffering for the 9 billion chickens who are slaughtered in the United States each year," he said.
PETA seeks to have identical resolutions voted on by shareholders of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Wendy's International Inc., Safeway Inc., and Applebee's International Inc. The group also has filed a broader proposal with Yum! Brands Inc., the parent of KFC, with whom PETA has been battling for nearly a year. The group said it also plans to file shareholder proposals with Tyson Foods Corp. and Pilgrim's Pride Corp., the nation's largest chicken processors.
A shift by McDonald's might have implications throughout the industry.
Four years ago, McDonald's ordered its egg suppliers to increase the size of cages housing chickens and to end cruel practices, such as starving chickens for up to two weeks or withholding water for up to a week, to increase egg production.
The McDonald's order came after an 11-month fight with PETA to improve the living conditions of chickens.
PETA's latest effort against McDonald's is part of a larger effort to force more changes in the way chickens are raised and slaughtered.
The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.