The Truth About McDonald’s and Animal Welfare

McDonald’s has issued misleading PR statements regarding animal welfare in its chicken supply. Unfortunately, these statements lack the meaningful reforms needed to address the most pressing animal cruelty problems--reforms which dozens of other major chains have adopted. We are deeply concerned about this and feel obliged to clarify what the company is and is not doing.

The Problems:

Chickens are genetically selected—manipulated to grow unnaturally large, incredibly fast. According to University of Arkansas researchers, if humans grew at a similar rate, a six-pound newborn would weigh 660 pounds after just two months. Because these Frankenbirds are killed at only about 6 weeks old, they are still developing—and their bodies can’t take the strain: many suffer heart attacks, endure crippling deformities, and suffer broken legs, which buckle under the enormous weight of their own bodies. To make matters worse, they’re confined in cramped, barren warehouses that are kept light most hours of the day. There’s no mandate for meaningful “environmental enrichment” (stimuli to keep birds interested and engaged with their surroundings and to promote activity). The litter (the shavings on which the birds live) quality is poor, and they’re confined in such density, with tens of thousands of other birds, that they’re prevented from moving freely.

Burger King, Subway, Jack in the Box, Sonic, and dozens of other major food companies have mandated that their chicken suppliers implement precise reforms to meaningfully address these concerns by 2024. McDonald’s can too.

So what’s the deal with McDonald’s?

A close read of McDonald’s PR statements reveal that the company is failing to make specific, firm, meaningful commitments—but rather using vague assertions and goals that have little (if anything) to do with the major animal welfare concerns facing chickens in McDonald’s supply chain.

  • McDonald’s Statement:

    “Source broiler chickens raised with improved welfare outcomes. We plan to set targets, measure performance and report on key farm-level welfare outcomes across our largest markets.”

    Our Response:

    We certainly favor improved animal welfare outcomes, but this statement is so vague as to be meaningless. Not only does it lack any of the specific goals outlined by Burger King and other companies, but it raises more questions than it answers. What are the outcomes McDonald’s will measure? McDonald’s may “plan” to set targets – but when? And what will the targets be? How will it measure performance? What are the “key” issues it will cover?

  • McDonald’s Statement:

    “Partner with technology companies, producers, and suppliers to develop on-farm monitoring systems to automate the gathering of key animal health and welfare indicators, including behavioral measures. Once established, these technologies will highlight potential areas for improvement in real time and will be among the first of their kind available at a commercial scale.”

    Our Response:

    Here, again, the statement is too vague to offer a real sense of meaningful progress. What are the indicators that will be gathered? What “behavioral measures” will be monitored? Who will be monitoring them? Moreover, will McDonald’s require the “potential” improvements highlighted to be adopted by suppliers?

  • McDonald’s Statement:

    “Establish a global, multi-stakeholder Advisory Council focused on chicken sustainability, with participation from academics and scientists, suppliers and industry experts, animal welfare and environmental advocates to support our continued journey on chicken sustainability, inclusive of health and welfare.”

    Our Response:

    The way McDonald’s words this certainly makes this council sound good, but a close read reveals quite a lot. For example, the council’s singular goal is apparently to “support” McDonald’s—not to guide or push or help McDonald’s progress, but merely to support its program, which is both undefined and falls short of its peers’ efforts. Thus, it appears as if McDonald’s—which we already know isn’t tackling chicken welfare in a meaningful way—is putting together a council whose singular goal will be to endorse the company’s actions.

    Especially in light of that goal, it’s likely McDonald’s will stack the deck with those who share its current views, rather than those who’d seek to actually improve conditions for animals. Indeed, McDonald’s has already used that tactic before to delay animal welfare progress.

    When McDonald’s was facing pressure over using eggs from caged chickens, it helped form the so-called “Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply (CSES).” This sounds a lot like this “council for chicken sustainability.” The CSES was supposedly created to “study” the pros and cons of cage vs. cage-free housing. And like this council, the CSES included “academics and scientists, suppliers and industry experts.” But McDonald’s chose participants who were on the record as publicly supporting locking hens in cages for their entire lives. So from the get-go, the CSES seemed to have a foregone conclusion, and was designed quite clearly to favor cage confinement over cage-free conditions. (Read the Humane Society of the United States’ response to the CSES here.) Now, facing pressure over its chicken standards, McDonald’s seems to be reviving the same delay tactic it’s tried before.

  • From McDonald’s Statement:

    “Require chickens to be raised in housing environments that promote natural behaviors such as pecking, perching and dust-bathing. These behaviors are encouraged through enrichments, such as the provision of perches and pecking objects, access to floor litter 100 percent of the time, and providing a minimum of 20 lux light intensity during photoperiods, with a minimum of 6 hours of darkness (4 hours to be continuous) during a 24 hour time period, reflecting scientific evidence from poultry experts.”

    Our Response:

    This lacks specifics on too many important areas. For example, what type of enrichments will be required, and how many? Would one single perching area in a warehouse with 250,000 birds suffice for McDonald’s? It is commonplace that birds already have access to floor litter. Rather, it is the quality and quantity of litter that is of great concern--and these important details are missing, which renders this policy vacant of any positive change. Other companies have specific requirements on these issues, while McDonald’s seems to have none. And the specifics the company does offer (on lighting)—merely mirror current laws in the European Union. So on that point, all McDonald’s is saying is that its suppliers can’t abuse birds in ways that are so cruel that all of the E.U. has already banned them.

These are just a few examples. McDonald’s PR statement is rife with these types of vague and meaningless assertions that raise more questions than they answer, and that fall short of what the company’s competitors are doing to improve the welfare of chickens raised for meat.

In Conclusion:

The way McDonald’s allows chickens to be abused for its menu is unacceptable. Fortunately, nearly 100 food companies, including McDonald’s competitors, are now requiring specific and meaningful reforms. McDonald’s is refusing to follow this progress. It’s especially disappointing to see but we’re hoping that decency and mercy eventually prevail.

Please join the Humane Society of the United States in urging McDonald’s to eliminate the worst abuses chickens suffer.

Call McDonald’s: 1-888-833-8392