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McDonald's big switch

Company leader talks about the decision to switch to cage-free eggs

All Animals magazine, November/December 2016

Photo collage by Shaina Lieberman/The HSUS. Sign photo by Ingesche/istock.com; chicken photo by George Clerk/istock.com; pigs photo by Bazilfoto/istock.com.

The day McDonald's announced that its locations in the U.S. and Canada would go cage-free with its eggs was actually relatively easy for the company’s vice president of global public affairs and engagement, Jill Manata. Amidst McDonald’s extensive multi-year study of several hen housing systems and a supply-chain overhaul, a little ol’ media frenzy made for a pretty light day.

“The announcement is actually the easiest part,” Manata says. “There is a tremendous amount of work up front to understand the issue, assess any opportunities for change, explore our options and reach a final decision.”

The work started in 2000, when McDonald’s was the first in the industry to insist its producers improve welfare standards for hens. But even with the increased space the company required, the birds were still tightly confined, unable to spread their wings. The HSUS encouraged McDonald’s to find a better way, and the company then funded a study with Michigan State University and University of California at Davis. The study evaluated three alternatives, based on a spectrum of factors such as animal welfare, food safety and employee health. McDonald’s also met with its producers to learn more about the money and time required to improve the supply chain.

All animals deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. I think we all agree on that point.“—Jill Manata

In September 2015, the company—the largest egg buyer in the country—announced that it will phase in the purchase of its 2 billion eggs each year from only cage-free suppliers, essentially a death blow to the hopes of those in the industry still clinging to cage confinement. Then Manata and the rest of McDonald’s set about making it happen.

“Meaningful change can be like a marathon,” Manata says. “There is a lot of work up front to train and prepare. The announcement is the gun at the starting line. And the real work is getting to the finish line, which is the true goal.”

In this edited interview with All Animals, Manata talks about McDonald’s efforts to improve animal welfare.

  • Photo by Artpipi/istock.com

Tell us a little about your background with animals.

Growing up, I had cats and dogs. Both of my grandparents lived on farms, raising quite a few animals actually—chickens, sheep and pigs, to name a few. We even had a beautiful horse named Molly, which I loved. Today, my schedule gets in the way of me having a pet, and I would feel guilty if I couldn’t give it the time and attention it deserves. Fortunately, I have lots of friends, family and neighbors with pets—mostly rescues.

Why do you feel that removing caged eggs from McDonald’s supply chain is important?

All animals deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. I think we all agree on that point. Decisions like our cage-free commitment are often a balance of expert insight, customer expectations, our company values and our ability to feasibly make sustainable change. We considered the best available science, the best role we could play, the input from suppliers and other stakeholders and evolving consumer values. In this case, we were able to make an informed decision that is consistent with our values and delivers what our customers want.

After the announcement, dozens of other companies followed in your footsteps. Did you expect the domino effect?

We respect that our size and scale can have an impact beyond our own supply. In a way, that feels like an additional responsibility in the decisions we make. We try to take a thoughtful and evidence-based approach toward feasible and sustainable solutions that can be adopted by others who also seek to improve the treatment of animals. At the end of the day, we are part of an industry that must work together, and often it’s critical for us to partner with others, especially when our size alone isn’t significant enough to influence positive change.

McDonald’s announced in 2012 that it will eliminate gestation crates for pigs. Where is the company in the process of that transition, and what’s the next step?

We committed to buying pork from verified sources that do not use gestation stalls to house pregnant sows by the end of 2022. Following our announcement, our first task was to get the producers on board. This is essential, as McDonald’s alone cannot make this happen. Since producers are independent businesses and several steps removed from our company, it was important that we were able to ensure we were working with a supply chain that could support this transition. Today, we are actively working to align on a set of acceptable standards, including learning from the experience of suppliers already converting their businesses. We are optimistic that it won’t be a McDonald’s-specific standard, but one that others can also use.

  • Photo by Bazilfoto/istock.com

What other steps are you taking to improve the welfare standards for animals in the McDonald’s supply chain?

Our top priorities are delivering against the commitments made on both sow housing and hen housing. Success requires focus. In addition, we are supporting our suppliers and the industry in advancing their dairy welfare standards, including accelerating their goal to end the practice of tail docking by 2017. What shouldn’t be overlooked is the attention required to maintain existing standards and practices across supply chains, including taking corrective action, when necessary.

On a related front, we are actively working to address antibiotic resistance and promote responsible use. We know this is an issue important to consumers, producers and health advocates. Our policy still requires that any sick animal is treated, as we recognize the importance of animal health. Preferably, we seek to improve conditions that ultimately lead to fewer sick animals and a reduced need for antibiotics.

Could there be a veggie burger or other plant protein option on the horizon?

McDonald’s has sharpened our focus on our customer. We want to deliver against what they look for when they visit our restaurants. This varies by region and by country around the world. For any menu item to be successful at McDonald’s, it has to carry strong demand and frequency of purchase.

While our experience with a veggie burger in the U.S. hasn’t historically met this threshold, we remain open to future menu options that could. With an increase in consumer interest in plant-based proteins and more customization in our menu, nothing is ruled out.

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