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PETA pushes for slaughter reforms, ruffles feathers by passing out 'Unhappy Meals' to McDonald's customers

August 11, 2009 | 10:30 pm

PETA's Unhappy Meal

PETA and McDonald's have long been arch-nemeses, but after a long period of relative calm, the animal rights group has ratcheted up the rhetoric recently. Its tactic: Passing out "Unhappy Meals," which include a rubber chicken stained with fake blood, a small paper cutout showing Ronald McDonald wielding a bloody knife and a T-shirt bearing the logo "McCruelty."  

Needless to say, not everyone is pleased with the approach. At a McDonald's restaurant in Albany, N.Y., some parents fumed when confronted with PETA's message. "I don't want my son to be around something like this," one mother, who'd brought her son to eat lunch at the fast-food chain, told Albany's Fox 23 News. "This is not fair for a child."

But PETA Executive Vice President Tracy Reiman doesn't seem terribly concerned about the criticism.  "If kids knew how unhappy the chickens who are killed for Happy Meals really are, they'd lose their lunch," Reiman said in a statement. "And if parents don't want them to know, then the decent thing to do is to refuse to take them to eat [at McDonald's]."

The issue at the heart of PETA's complaint is the method by which chickens are killed to produce McDonald's menu items such as Chicken McNuggets. The primary method used by McDonald's U.S. suppliers is called electric immobilization, or electric stunning. 

According to PETA and other animal advocacy groups, the electric stunning method is inherently cruel to the birds, in part because the level of electricity used to immobilize them isn't enough to render them insensible to pain. Additionally, PETA says, many birds stunned using this method suffer broken wings and legs as a side effect of the process, which involves manual handling by a slaughterhouse worker.

An alternate method called controlled-atmosphere stunning is less cruel and eliminates physical pain for the birds, PETA says. In this method, oxygen is removed from the birds' atmosphere without them ever being handled by a worker, and they die of anoxia, which PETA argues is a painless process. Controlled-atmosphere stunning is a fairly common method of slaughtering poultry in Europe, but not widely used in the United States.

PETA's goal, then, is to induce McDonald's to mandate controlled-atmosphere stunning as the method of slaughter used by its poultry suppliers.

No dice, says McDonald's.

Bob Langert, the fast-food giant's vice president of corporate social responsibility, insisted to Slashfood that McDonald's works in conjunction with "leading independent animal-welfare experts" to address concerns about animal-welfare issues relating to its food production. 

But, Langert continued, no large-scale poultry suppliers in the United States use the controlled-atmosphere stunning method, meaning that "demands to purchase chickens from this method to meet McDonald's supply needs are not viable."

But, PETA says, this excuse is precisely the reason they're going after the giant of the fast-food industry. If McDonald's, with all its corporate clout, were to demand comparatively humane slaughter methods from its suppliers, the path would be cleared for other restaurants to follow.

As for the group's methods -- and it's hardly the first time PETA has ruffled feathers with its publicity-friendly strategies -- at least a few McDonald's customers said they would remember the Unhappy Meals' message before they ate another McNugget. "Look at these chickens," a woman told Fox 23. "It's sad, and I love animals."

-- Lindsay Barnett

Photo: A sticker included in PETA's "Unhappy Meals." Credit: PETA

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