Since McDonald’s is a global icon of cultural imperialism and the target for numerous other social complaints, it’s a little awkward to celebrate the world’s largest fast-food corporation for a progressive political breakthrough. Nevertheless, McDonald’s has taken on what American politics lacks the nerve to confront: the dangerous practices of agribusiness in producing chicken, beef and pork–that is, the food McDonald’s sells to families. The company formally acknowledged in late June that the heavy use of growth-stimulating antibiotics by the meat industry threatens human health. It advised its poultry suppliers to phase out the practice or face the prospect of losing the business of America’s largest buyer of meat products. The warning is less firm for hogs and cattle, but those suppliers know they are on notice too. Mickey D is listening to his customers. “We would love to be a catalyst for change industrywide,” McDonald’s director for social responsibility affirmed.
Let’s hear it also for the galaxy of civic-action groups, from the Union of Concerned Scientists to Environmental Defense, from the Humane Society to the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, who made this happen. A coalition of thirteen organizations put aside cultural and political differences to educate the McDonald’s management. Some, like the Sierra Club, delivered the message by direct action, picketing Golden Arches outlets with signs like Get Food Off Drugs. Others, like Environmental Defense, pursued a lawyerly inside track, negotiating in “partnership” with the company’s proclaimed commitment to social responsibility.
The victory at McDonald’s is but one small piece in a much larger subject–the politics of food–but it demonstrates that people are not powerless against corporate behemoths, even the market leaders, if they find the right points of leverage. In an era when politics is paralyzed, unable or unwilling to advance government regulation of food and agriculture, some Americans have figured out how to achieve the next best thing–consumer power that changes industry behavior, not by one purchase at a time but on a grand scale by targeting large brands in the middleman position. We’ll see a lot more of this consumer jujitsu, because it works.
Michael Khoo, a campaign leader at the Union of Concerned Scientists, explains: “It’s definitely not perfect and it’s an unfortunate substitute for law, but people do have the power to change things. In a sense, McDonald’s is playing the role of what would be the USDA inspectors. If there’s going to be a choice, I would definitely rather have the government do it, but right now we don’t have a choice.”
The antibiotics problem is widely understood though not yet candidly addressed by industry scientists or the federal government. Their egregious overuse encourages the development of resistant strains of bacteria that then may migrate into the environment at large, including perhaps human bodies. The supposed efficiency of corporatized agriculture is riddled with many such contradictions–the company cuts costs and boosts profits by growing the chickens or hogs faster, often in brutal conditions, then somebody else (usually the taxpayers) pays to fight newly created strains of disease. Given market competition, each company typically claims it has no choice but to adopt the various practices of so-called efficiency that also produce collateral damage to society, health and the environment. Then they hear from their customers–not just scattered objections now and then, but in concerted, coordinated, well-informed waves.
Yes, it definitely helped that the long-running record of McDonald’s sales growth has stalled. When you’re losing customers or not gaining enough new ones, it does focus the company’s mind on what might be wrong with the product. Nike underwent a similar conversion experience on the issue of sweatshops when its market share began to decline. Who knows why this happened, but Nike couldn’t ignore the possibility that all those crazy kids campaigning against foul labor practices in Asian or Mexican sweatshops might have something to do with falling sales.