Temple Grandin still remembers a day, back in 1999, when she led a restaurant vice president on his first tour of a slaughterhouse.
"That day, we saw a half-dead, skinny dairy cow walk up the ramp into the plant and go into their product," says the renowned livestock researcher and professor of animal science at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. "He was shocked at how horrible it was. He said, ‘We've got to make that stop.'"
Grandin had been hired by two chains—McDonald's and Wendy's—to audit the slaughter plants that sold them beef and pork, using a scoring system she'd devised three years earlier for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Most plants did well, but a handful did not. When McDonald's dropped one supplier and suspended several others, it got attention.
"I saw more change in six months than I had in the 25 years prior," says Grandin. "Overnight, these plants were forced to fix things, and it made a big difference."
Animal welfare can be a hot-button topic, with activist groups and meat producers often at odds and restaurants caught in the middle. All major chains contacted for this story declined or did not respond to interview requests.
But there's one point on which all sides agree: Restaurants are key agents of change. As major buyers of meat, they have a lot of leverage over the conditions under which animals live and die. Over the past 15 years, they've been using that leverage more and more, both in slaughterhouses and on the farm.
"As soon as McDonald's and Burger King said chickens needed more space in their cages, the changes were made in six months," says Adele Douglass, CEO of Humane Farm Animal Care of Herndon, Virginia, which audits food producers.
At Bon Appetit Management Company of Palo Alto, which runs 400 college and corporate cafes, "We use our purchasing to support small, local producers who are already doing things better," explains Maisie Greenawalt, vice president of strategy. "At the other end ... we use our purchasing as a carrot, to incentivize mega-producers to do better." Bon Appetit plans to buy only gestation-stall-free pork and cage-free eggs by 2015.
What's forcing the topic to the center of the plate is customers, says Charlie Arnot, CEO of the Center for Food Integrity in Gladstone, Missouri, which advises the National Restaurant Association on animal welfare. "The system is designed to be very responsive to consumer demand, channeled through restaurants. They represent the consumer to the supply chain."
In a 2011 poll, Arnot's group found 42 percent of consumers to be very concerned about humane treatment of animals. Other firms find similar sentiments:
•In a 2013 survey, 55 percent of diners told Technomic it's important the poultry they eat be humanely treated.
•Context Marketing reported in 2010 that 77 percent of women and 64 percent of men believe in applying humane standards to farm animals.
Their concerns, say observers, have been raised by years of campaigns by activist groups, as well as authors like Michael Pollan and movie exposés like "Food, Inc."
Since the late 1990s, following successful rusades around cosmetics and furs, organizations like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have targeted restaurants. They've dramatized their cases with undercover videos, street protests and lurid websites, with titles like "Kentucky Fried Cruelty" and "Wicked Wendy's."
PETA's position is that meat shouldn't be served at all, says Dave Byers, senior corporate liaison. "But we realize that not everyone is going to be vegan tomorrow, so we work with restaurant chains to eliminate the worst practices in their supply chains."
Activists see restaurants as more effective pressure points than lawmakers or regulators. "It took almost 100 years for the Humane Slaughter Act to pass [in 1978]," says Douglass, a former congressional staffer. "I believe the best way to get change is through the marketplace."
The watershed event, say many observers, was a 1997 British trial, in which McDonald's sued two activists for libel. Though McDonald's won the overall case, the trial judge called it "culpably responsible for cruel practices" with some animals. Shortly after, McDonald's hired Grandin and set up an Animal Welfare Council. Other chains soon followed suit.
It was only the beginning. After an 11-month PETA campaign, which included handing out "Unhappy Meals" next to the golden arches, McDonald's issued new guidelines for egg-laying hens. It required more elbow room in cages—up from 48 to 72 square inches per bird—and forbade the practice of starving chickens to boost egg production.
With each round of changes, activists have campaigned to raise the bar further on how restaurants should define "humane." In recent years, they've focused on pig and chicken confinement: gestation stalls, which hold sows in 2-by-7 foot spaces for four months; and battery cages, which keep egg-laying hens confined.
Chipotle led the charge to phase out gestation stalls, starting in 2002. Burger King, McDonald's, Wendy's and Denny's followed in 2012. Burger King has also set goals for cage-free eggs, alongside chains like Subway and IHOP.
Gestation-stall critics say it is inhumane to confine sows for so long with little room to move. Advocates say the stalls protect sows from other pigs and allow for more controlled feeding and care. When McDonald's announced its plan to phase out the stalls last year—after years of external and internal pressure, according to the New York Times—it stated, "McDonald's believes gestation stalls are not a sustainable production system for the future. There are alternatives we think are better for the welfare of sows."
Some suppliers have responded, as well. Pork producers Hormel and Smithfield Foods plan to move all company-owned farms to group housing—as opposed to gestation stalls—by 2017.
The program will cost Smithfield at least $300 million, largely for expanding barns, says Dennis Treacy, executive vice president and chief sustainability officer. But with 38 percent of farms already converted, it's seeing some benefits.
"Workers are now telling us, in a widespread way, they prefer this system of housing," says Treacy. "The animals are calm and able to mingle freely. There seems to be less noise and disruption in the barn."
Not all suppliers or animal researchers agree. The more animals you combine in a space, they warn, the more you raise their risks of aggression and injury.
"Pigs don't like to be mixed with unfamiliar pigs," says Candace Croney, associate professor of animal sciences at Purdue University. "They may have fewer piglets born early when they're mixed together."
Food conglomerate Cargill has moved half its sows into group housing, but defends existing practices. "Some recent commercial decisions in parts of the food supply chain, related to animal welfare, have not been based on science, validated research or best practices," says Mike Siemens, leader of animal welfare and husbandry in Wichita, Kansas. "Instead, they have been based upon the emotive appeal, in most instances created by arties critical of production agriculture."
Grandin herself has mixed feelings about group housing. She supports it for sows, but believes chickens are often safest from one another in colony cages: expanded cages with perches, scratching areas and private nests.
Nonetheless, she contends, producers should take emotions into account. When traveling by plane, she has shown pictures of crated sows to fellow passengers and asked their reactions.
"Agriculture," she says, "needs to look at everything they do as if they were showing it to 10 people at a bus stop, and asking, ‘What are they going to think?' If you put an animal in a box, where it can't turn around for most of its life, the vast majority of the public is not going to accept that."
Groups representing producers generally maintain a neutral position, arguing that all production methods have their place.
"The National Pork Board builds its animal care and well-being programs on this foundation: What is best for the pig?" explains NPB spokesperson Jarrod Sutton. "The board relies on the best scientific research available to make this determination—and the best scientific research now available indicates there are several types of production systems that can be good for pigs. These systems include open pens, gestation stalls, as well as open pastures."
The National Chicken Council holds a similar stance: "All chicken production systems, including organic, pasture raised and traditional methods, address issues as necessary to achieve its primary objective—the commitment to provide consumers with safe, wholesome and affordable food," says spokesperson Tom Super. "We all need to work together in order to meet the challenges of feeding a planet that's going to reach 9 billion people soon."
"We support providing choices to meet consumer preferences for beef, whether grain-finished, grass-finished, natural or organic," says Ryan Ruppert, senior director for Beef Quality Assurance at the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. "Our expectation is that everyone who handles cattle, regardless of the production method, follows established Beef Quality Assurance best practices to ensure animals are handled properly. Raising healthy animals is the first step in producing wholesome beef."
Regardless of the neutrality, more animal welfare issues are going to have to be dealt with. Two issues on the animal welfare horizon promise to be emotional – and controversial:
Dehorning: PETA has introduced shareholder resolutions at pizza chains Papa John's and Domino's, opposing the dehorning of dairy cattle. Ranchers admit it's a painful process, but say it's crucial to protect both cows and humans from injuries.
Gas stunning: Chickens are typically hung upside down and shocked electrically into unconsciousness before slaughter. That method causes needless distress, say some activists and researchers, as well as broken bones. They're pushing an alternative called Controlled Atmosphere Killing. It suffocates birds, slowly replacing oxygen in their crates with gasses like carbon dioxide.
Quizno's, Subway and Ruby Tuesday buy some chickens and turkeys killed this way. But other chains that have investigated, like McDonald's, say the
scientific jury is still out on which method is most effective and causes the least pain.
It comes down to the customers, says Greenawalt. "Every restaurant executive worth his salt knows these issues are on their radar. Ten years ago, they weren't. But we're very close to a tipping point, where restaurant companies understand they're going to have to take some action. Because consumers are going to demand change."
Animal welfare certification
What's in a name? Not much, if the name is "humanely raised," says Chicago restaurateur Dan Rosenthal. "A producer can say anything he wants to on a label to mislead or misdirect the consumer."
With seven Chicago restaurants, including his flagship Sopraffina, he's too small to audit farms and slaughterhouses himself. Instead, he looks for the label Animal Welfare Approved.
The nonprofit group of the same name, in Washington, D.C., certifies products from 436 farms. It requires all animals have outdoor space and adds multiple pages of species standards for beef, pork, chicken and more.
"What we're seeking to do is to make sure the restaurant is buying what it's paying for," says program director Andrew Gunther. He adds that certification helps farmers, too. "We're focused on, ‘Can we increase the supply of this type of meat to the marketplace?'"
AWA is not the only animal welfare label around. Good Times Burgers of Golden, Colorado, relies on two others for its 39 units. Its beef is Certified Humane, by Humane Farm Animal Care of Herndon, Virginia, while its chicken is American Humane Certified, by the American Humane Association in Washington, D.C.
"It gives us a bit of a halo," says CEO Boyd Hoback, who notes his meats are also free of antibiotics and growth hormones. "We're trying to create differentiation in our brand by offering the highest-quality products we can. Having protocols in place for humane treatment of animals fits in our brand umbrella."
Rosenthal prefers AWA-certified products, but when he can't find them, he'll scout Whole Foods Market, which uses the affiliated certifier Global Animal Partnership. If he finds a product he likes, he says, "We'll go to the producer [to order directly]. It's a quick and dirty way to sidestep the problem."