Victory at McDonald’s

Victory at McDonald’s

Watch for William Greider’s forthcoming book The Soul of Capitalism: Opening Paths to a Moral Economy, due in bookstores in early September. Click here for info on the book and original reflections and riffs from Greider.


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.

In other words, winning reform is not a sentimental question about whether the CEO has a conscience. The mechanism for change is market power, something even a retrograde executive like Nike’s Phil Knight has come to appreciate. Nike, like McDonald’s, naturally has a long way to go, but it does now respond to those activists from United Students Against Sweatshops, exposing factory conditions of the Nike contractors who actually make the shoes.

“Buy green” activism has been around for decades, of course, but with exceedingly modest impact on industrial practices. What has changed is an essential strategic insight. In the nature of American capitalism, consumers are in a weak position and have very little actual leverage over the content of what they buy or how it is produced (aside perhaps from feeling personally guilty about destructive consequences). Instead of browbeating individual consumers, new reform campaigns focus on the structure of industry itself and attempt to leverage entire sectors. The activists identify and target the larger corporate “consumers” who buy an industrial sector’s output and sell it at retail under popular brand names. They can’t stand the heat so easily, since they regularly proclaim that the customer is king. When one of these big names folds to consumer pressure, it sends a tremor through the supplier base, much as McDonald’s has.

Rainforest Action Network was one of the pioneers in this approach. It organized actions around Kinko’s, Home Depot and other big purchasers of paper and wood products. When hundreds of those middleman companies adopted RAN’s policy objectives for their suppliers–no harvesting of old-growth forest–the issue could no longer be ignored by the timber industry. This is a hard, long, messy way to change things, no question. Rainforest Action put the heat to Boise Cascade, a belligerent opponent of environmental regulation, and the company finally “capitulated” with a new policy statement. The commitment was bogus, RAN decided, and continued its organizing.

The McDonald’s commitment is regarded as genuine, despite some obvious fudging, but only a first step too. The fast-food giant is already working with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to reform the ways in which animals are raised and slaughtered. One of the strong points in the McDonald’s declaration is a commitment to continuous improvement and an auditing system of regular inspections that allows outside critics to judge for themselves whether the progress is real. The activist groups well understand that they can’t walk away after the corporate press release. They have to stay on the case. This private process, despite the weaknesses, may be developing new models for how to achieve industrial change–perhaps a prototype for more effective regulation if government ever finds the will to act on these issues.

The notorious “hog factories” of capital-intensive agriculture are among the ripe targets for similar campaigns. Smithfield Foods, the largest pork producer, continues to gobble up other major companies, tightening the market noose around smaller independent farmers whose incomes have been devastated by the spread of the factory model for raising hogs. But Smithfield’s many retail brand names are highly vulnerable, once consumers learn what they are buying with the bacon. The food we eat relies on extraordinarily inhumane methods that also sow destruction in surrounding environments while concentrating economic power in a handful of dominating corporations.

All these issues are the subject of contentious conflicts around the nation, especially in the farm states, yet the politics of food is not on the agenda of either major party. Does Ronald McDonald perhaps know something about Americans that the pollsters for Republicans and Democrats have overlooked? The explanation for their indifference is well understood. Both major parties (and most state governments) are fully aligned with the big names (and campaign contributors) of corporate agriculture. Most politicians embrace the industry’s economics–the logic that says bigness is better–and pols typically hide behind the veil of “sound science,” that is, industry claims that public complaints about health, environmental damage or the destruction of rural communities are mere sentiments.

Republicans are hopeless–no surprise. Some Democrats (including Representative Dennis Kucinich, a presidential candidate) do understand the centrality of food as a public concern–and recognize that the issue of food can unite people across the usual political divisions. A new presidential campaign is under way, and voters should listen carefully. Are any of these candidates brave enough to talk about hamburgers?

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