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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.

2 years fast food free

There was a time in my life where the song “McDonald’s Girl” could have been written about me. I worked there in high school and college, for a combined total of about 5 years, both as a regular crew member and a swing manager. I could write for days about my experiences there. It’s where I started drinking Diet Coke and eating cheese and bread. (Yeah, it’s honestly true. No wonder I was the size of a peanut in high school.) French fries were my absolute favorite food and McDonald’s had the best ones.  

That’s why it’s kind of bizarre that as of the end of January, I’ve been fast food free for 2 years and 4 months. I had my last fast food French fry when we visited Chicago for our first Star Trek convention in September 2011. I’m defining fast food as any of the following, and restaurants like them: McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Taco Bell, Long Johns, Subway and Arby’s. You get the drift. (I am going to use McDonald’s as my example in this post, since I have a great deal of knowledge about it, having worked there.)

A lot of people understand that in giving up junk food, you’d cut down on the amount of times you hit the drive thru. So that’s not surprising. But people are often surprised to know that I won’t eat fast food at all – salads and fruit, and even bottled water included. 

I’m not going to lie. I still smell McDonald’s when I go to a turnpike rest stop or some other food court and I am tempted to lean my head back and dump a large fry down my throat. The smell of the restaurant brings back a lot of memories for me. But I am able to resist the temptation because my reasons for NOT eating fast food are varied and truly important to me.

1. Health
It’s no secret that the majority of the food served at McDonald’s isn’t good for you. And while it’s possible to lose weight or not gain weight while eating a lot of McDonald’s (I ate A LOT of McDonald’s when I worked there.), weight isn’t the only indicator of health. Nutritionally, fast food has a lot of empty calories, and its menus contain huge amounts of additives and chemicals. It’s ironic that I started to like cheese and bread while working there, since the cheese is barely cheese and the bread is barely bread. Practically everything is processed in one way or another and it’s about the farthest away from “clean food” that you can get.

2. Sourcing of food
It’s not just what’s in fast food that I have an issue with. It’s where it comes from. The meats are all sourced from CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations), as well as the eggs. Dairy is likely from cows that have been given rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone) and antibiotics are probably everywhere. I don’t eat meat in general that has been raised like that, and I don’t want the dairy or the eggs either.

It’s worth noting that just recently McDonald’s announced that it would “commit to sourcing sustainable beef” in 2016. But considering its track record and the fact that no real definition exists of “sustainable beef,” it feels like more of a marketing/PR stunt than anything.

3. Environment
McDonald’s generates a lot of waste. It also contributes to monocultures that harm farmland because it insists on vegetables that will taste exactly the same across its global empire. (The russett burbank potato for its fries is a big issue.) Their produce is not farmed sustainably or organically, and so you’ve got the issue of pesticides as well. Mass meat production is not good for the environment either – CAFOs and meat processing plants are huge polluters.

4. Workers
There have been a lot of protests across the country about raising the wage of fast food workers and lobbying for better employee benefits and treatment. I was drastically underpaid for the work I was responsible for when I worked at McDonald’s and I often worked in very unsafe conditions. No one at our store, even the store manager, was eligible for benefits of any kind, not even paid vacation. I was given two dirty shirts and a name tag when I started, and we didn’t get even one free meal during our shifts, just a small discount. (We were a franchise, so the owner wasn’t required to provide any of that for us, like they might to a degree at a corporate store.) Without wading into the debate about what actually constitutes a living wage, fast food workers deserve more than they get, especially when the C-suite leaders at the top are swimming on gold coins like Scrooge McDuck, on the backs of the people making minimum wage.

It’s also worth noting that industrial farmworkers are also abused and suffer from pesticide exposure and wage fraud on a huge scale – and these are the companies where fast food companies source their food.     

5. Advertising to kids
It’s true that most 6 year olds don’t get to McDonald’s on their own. They are presumably taken by adults, who are the ones making the choices about what their kids eat. But the insidious marketing by McDonald’s to very young children – ones unable to discern what advertising actually is – is unacceptable. I personally would see the same kids every single day for multiple meals at McDonald’s, with parents who didn’t just use it as an occasional treat, but as routine meals for their kids. The kids were hyped up on it and wanted the toys that came with their meals. And it made me sad that these kids were being set up to crave this food, even though anyone knows that double cheeseburgers aren’t the greatest nourishment for growing bodies. And chicken nuggets that are barely chicken aren’t either.

6. Shady charity activities
McDonald’s is known for its signature charity, the Ronald McDonald House. Which, let’s state for the record, is an awesome charity, providing housing and support for families with sick children across the country. There’s no denying that. But there is a lot of evidence that McDonald’s uses the Ronald McDonald House as a marketing/PR tool, without giving a lot of financial support (sometimes only about 10% of a local chapter’s necessary support). For more about this, read Michele Simon’s report here, on Eat Drink Politics

Some of these issues are specific to McDonald’s, but most of them apply to all fast food. And that’s why I turned my back on fast food more than two years ago. Even though it’s cheap and convenient, I choose to go without.