The Home of the Whopper is going cage-free (at least when it comes to bacon and eggs). The Los Angeles Times and NPR gave Burger King shout-outs yesterday for promising to phase out all pork produced from animals housed in gestation crates (see above) by 2017. The chain will also stop serving eggs laid by caged chickens.
This is the biggest move yet by a fast food leader to improve the welfare of animals in its food supply. Activists rightly applaud it. However, the Times noted -- pointedly, I thought -- that the announcement came one day after news that a California dairy cow was diagnosed with bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease. The animal represented only the fourth mad cow case ever detected in the United States and the first since 2006.
Is Burger King lobbing a preemptive strike against concerns for the health and safety of its food supply? Or is this just the latest move in a chain reaction running through the fast food industry? My guess: It’s probably both. The mad cow announcement is bound to shake Americans. While we may have grown used to (if not, I hope, resigned to) E. coli in ground beef, we still tend to get the willies when it comes to Variant Creutzfeld-Jakob. This human disease is brought on by the same protein that causes BSE in cows -- and it's always fatal. These fears are sort of like worrying about dying in a plane crash (the equivalent of mad cow) when you drive to work on the freeway every morning (E. coli). Noted food safety and nutrition expert Marion Nestle agrees with me: read her take on mad cow mania.
The mad cow ick factor, however, isn’t just about what the disease does to its victims, bovine or human. There's also the distate for how it spreads: animals that are normally herbivorous forced to eat their own species by the factory farm system. In England, where mad cow famously erupted in 1986, cattle and other domestic animals were eating feed made with “high risk” cattle parts, like brain and spinal tissue. Consuming this tissue can infect the eater with the prions, or specialized proteins, that cause BSE. Did I mention, ick?
As for following the industry trend of bettering the lives of livestock, Reuters reported as early as 2007 that Burger King was improving conditions for its chickens. So the restaurant's news isn’t all that new. But perhaps the company thought it bore repeating in a year that has seen a flurry of fast-food behemoths trying to alter the perception of their products as cruel, unhealthy, or both. After Chipotle struck gold touting its ethical meat bona fides with a feel-good Willie Nelson ad in January (see my assessment here), McDonald’s announced its own ban-to-come of pork raised in gestation crates, timing TBD. Wendy’s, which has long touted its “fresh, never frozen” burgers, was one of the first fast food chains to consider higher ethical standards for meat, announcing in 2007 that it would move away from crated pork. The company also clambered aboard the safe meat bandwagon during last month’s pink slime debacle, reminding consumers that (unlike rival McDonald’s) it had never used finely textured beef (the proper name for pink slime) in its products. (McDonald’s dropped the use of the product at the end of January.)
And what about the BK Whopper? Burger King also gave up slime this year, but otherwise, its only official policy regarding beef is to use cows raised in an “environmentally responsible way," meaning that the beef is not from “recently deforested tropical rainforests." This policy was first announced in 1987, when the company was threatened with a boycott by the Rainforest Action Network.
It’s progress, and it’s slow. If you’ve seen pictures of pigs who spend their entire lives in those crates (they leave them only to give birth), you’ll think twice about buying products made from them, so even small changes are welcome. However, I still think that avoiding highly processed fast foods is your best choice, whether for your health, the planet’s, or that of the animals we continue to raise for food.
Image: Farm Sanctuary/Flickr