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McDonald’s and Costco – making good chicken decisions?

It’s hard for me to ever find anything good to say about McDonald’s.

I’ll qualify that by saying that I worked there for almost 5 years, during the end of high school and through college. I have a lot of pride for the work that I did there with my other ‘crewmates’ – we worked very hard for very little money. And compared to any other work environment I’ve been in my whole life, the sense of teamwork was the strongest. In a job that is often truly disgusting (oh the tales of what you find in the bathrooms and Play Place) and often exposes you to the worst of humanity’s selfishness and rudeness, it was an important and formative experience in my life to work there.

There was a time when I could spot a Golden Arches a mile away, like a homing beacon, calling me to those familiar smells and beeps of machines. And the fries? Don’t even get me started on my love for their fries.

But I haven’t stepped foot in a McDonald’s in more than three years. Or any other similar fast food restaurant. I have previously written about why I gave up fast food, but in a nutshell, it’s because I can’t find anything redeeming about the food or the sourcing of it, and I won’t buy even water there so that I don’t support their horrible labor practices and predatory marketing. (While I loved my fellow co-workers, we were routinely cheated of overtime and labor laws were ignored, all while we were making virtually nothing.) So let’s say I haven’t had anything positive to say about the company, well, ever.

But last week, McDonald’s announced that it will move away from using chickens raised with human antibiotics as well as milk that’s free of rBST (an artificial growth hormone). And a few days later, Costco, a company I look much more favorably upon, announced something similar.

Let’s start with the positives. I am never going to fault a company for moving away from using antibiotics to promote growth in their animals. Animals should never be raised in conditions where infection rates are so high that they need them to promote growth in the first place. So there’s the animal welfare side, but more importantly with this particular issue, public health is at stake. The CDC has repeatedly said that overuse of antibiotics is a major public health threat, and thousands of people die each year from antibiotic resistant infections. We are closer than we think to a situation where common antibiotics are no longer effective, so that a simple cut could be life threatening.

This is a good decision for public health, personal health and animal welfare. I was happy when Purdue announced it was moving to be antibiotic free in its hatcheries as well as later for growth. It means that they have to improve conditions for their birds to prevent disease from killing off the flocks – and they are a huge chicken producer in this country.

But.

And there’s always a but, right?

I’m wary of a statement or press release that doesn’t specifically call out the antibiotics that will not be used and instead uses terms like “antibiotics that are important to human medicine.” What does that mean? Who decides which ones are important to human medicine? A doctor who is on their payroll? You know the press release was very carefully crafted, particularly when discussing the milk issue (because law requires that anyone making a claim about rBST-free milk state that no difference has been found between milk with or without).

I really think that both Costco and McDonald’s know that the public is becoming more conscious of these issues. And this is a money-driven decision, especially for McDonald’s who is seeing its sales drop significantly. But that’s exactly why I’m wary of these decisions. All too often, labels end up like marketing terms (see “natural”) and they don’t have teeth behind them. I’m interested to see how both companies market this information on packaging and in advertising. Costco already sells a lot of organic and natural foods, so I’m glad to see them moving in that direction with meat. But how will both companies work with suppliers to really change the game?

For-profit companies will always have the bottom line as their first priority. Public health is a secondary concern – and one that can work to their advantage when it comes to public opinion and beliefs about health. (Was the McLean really a health food? I mean, seriously?)

So will these decisions cause me to start eating at McDonald’s or buy meat at Costco? No.

But I am happy to see them take a baby step in the right direction. Gives me something to keep my eye on. And when a mountain gets moved, it only takes one baby step to get the whole thing started.