Burger King announced today it will be moving to cage-free eggs and pork from cage-free sows. It is also going to make an effort to buy from poultry suppliers that use gas, known as "controlled atmospheric stunning," instead of electric shocks for slaughtering chickens. The New York Times article doesn't go into it, but the latter has a high failure rate and often ends up in chickens moving half-alive though the processing line, including the dip in boiling water to remove feathers. (Poultry are exempt from humane slaughter guidelines.)
Since Burger King buys more than 40 million pounds of eggs a year and 35 million pounds of pork, there is nowhere near enough of a supply of the cage-free versions. It said it will be phasing the changes in gradually, as more suppliers make the switch.
Given that Wolfgang Puck announced last week that he was only going to be buying cage-free eggs, veal, and pork for his restaurant and processed-food empire — and giving up foie gras altogether — quite a few people are hailing this either as a historic week for animal welfare … or as restauranteurs knuckling under to "animal-rights activists," depending on which side of the issues you stand.
To me the announcements fall somewhere in between, as in: better than nothing but not nearly specific or far-reaching enough to be impressive.
Burger King, you will note, did not say it would buy only cage-free chicken — just eggs from cage-free hens. And neither Burger King nor Puck is going whole hog on ethical pork. The announcements don't mention anything about factory hog-raising conditions past birth.
The practice of "crating" pregnant sows is indeed horrible, confining these intelligent, hygienic animals in pens too small for them to turn around, with food at one end and their feces dropping through slats at the other while endless litters of piglets suckle. Smithfield, the largest pork producer, has smartly decided to phase out sow gestation crates on its own generous timetable, hoping to head off further legislation like the bill in Arizona that does so for them.
Puck's press release (PDF), which trumpets that "his historic nine-point program aims to stop the worst practices associated with factory farming," says that he will henceforth "only serve all-natural or organic crate-free pork." Little asterisks at the bottom of the release define these terms:
[All natural =] no added hormones, no antibiotics, no preservatives, vegetarian fed, sustainable production and raising practices
[Certified Organic =] all-natural criteria, plus no pesticides and other land management requirements
I'm very curious where this definition of natural came from, since the USDA defines "natural" meat simply as a product that contains "no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed." And while it is revisiting this term, at the request of Hormel Foods, no less, the new definition is unlikely to include any animal-handling elements.
Meanwhile, hormones are already banned by law in raising pork and poultry. Is Puck's company going to be personally ascertaining that its pork comes from vegetarian-fed, antibiotic-free hogs? Animal protein and blood are standard ingredients in factory hog feed, and no hog factory housing tens of thousands of animals could survive without regular doses of antibiotics to contain illness. Also, what constitutes "sustainable" production and raising practices?
I called Wolfgang Puck's public relations department this morning for answers to these questions and clarification of how the "all natural" criteria will be enforced, and will update this post when I hear back from them. Basically, given that the Humane Society helped develop the guidelines, it sounds like Puck is no longer going to buy factory pork, period, but that is never explicitly stated. Also, some of the news coverage said that the changes applied not only to the restaurants and catering companies, but also to the prepared-food products. The press release does not say anywhere that the prepared-foods line, which includes a pepperoni pizza, will fall under the new guidelines.
Both Burger King and Puck also sidestep the issue of beef entirely. The word beef does not even appear in Puck's press release, and the New York Times says Burger King excluded beef cattle "from the new animal welfare guidelines because, unlike most laying hens and pigs, they continue to be raised outdoors." (I spent a while on Burger King's highly annoying website, searching for any announcement with the specific language of the guidelines, but in vain.) Leaving aside for now the fact that Burger King's shift does nothing to change that chickens and pigs will continue to be raised indoors in windowless hangar-sized sheds, the implication that "outdoors" equals acceptable, whether crowded feedlot or pasture, is laughable, and the Times should have questioned it.
Still, let's be glass half-full for a second: both Burger King and Wolfgang Puck Worldwide are definitely taking steps in the right direction. Their moves will have a huge effect on the supply of cage-free eggs and increase pressure to abolish sow-gestation crates entirely. And the new guidelines require significant additional expenses for both companies, perhaps offset somewhat by the immense amount of free publicity garnered by the moves.
Bottom line: There's still plenty of room for improvement.
Note: Check out the New York Times page for comments on the Burger King move, where conscious eaters — and a few trolls, of course — are weighing in fast and furiously.