Megan Steintrager, “Duty and the Beast,” Restaurant Business, vol. 101, June 15, 2002, p. 20. Copyright © 2002 by VNU Business Media. Reproduced by permission.
Megan Steintrager writes for Restaurant Business magazine. In the following selection, she reports on the influence of animal rights groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) on the restaurant business. Steintrager argues that activist groups have caused unprecedented changes in the restaurant industry. Groups like PETA are forcing large chain restaurants to make changes in animal welfare guidelines, partly in order to avoid negative publicity, Steintrager writes. However, she reports, the restaurants claim that they are not caving in to the activists—instead, they insist they are choosing to set their own standards for animal welfare. Nevertheless, Steintrager asserts, restaurants are giving in to the activists, whose ultimate goal is to eliminate meat from restaurants entirely. She concludes that restaurant operators need to stick together in order to prevail over the activists.
The buzz was everything a restaurateur could ask for when the high-end Chicago sushi restaurant Heat opened [in] January . The restaurant garnered a lot of favorable reviews, including three out of four stars (“excellent”) in the Chicago Tribune. “Fresh” was the word on everyone’s lips and soon the restaurant was packed with people clambering to taste the creations of chef-owner Kee Chan and his staff.
Then the letters and phone calls started. Unfortunately for Chan, those weren’t from fans.
News of Heat’s fresh sashimi had reached animal rights activists, and several of the restaurant’s dishes were a bit too fresh for them. In fact, some of it was still kicking—or to be more accurate, twitching and flopping—when it reached the table. Patrons were encouraged to behead live sweet prawns before peeling and eating the tail, for example. Fish arrived at the table fully alive—with chunks cut out of the belly.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), probably the best known and certainly the most influential animal–rights group in the U.S., alerted its members of these “atrocities” at Heat and Mirai, another Chicago sushi restaurant, and hundreds of letters were written to the Anti-Cruelty Society in Chicago and the Illinois Bureau of Welfare. A commentary published on PETA’s web site likened dinner at these restaurants to how we’d feel if “Hannibal Lecter decided to hack off one of our legs for a midnight snack.”
Chan says he tried to explain to the activists who approached him that it’s a common practice in Japan to serve live fish, or fish that’s killed tableside, to demonstrate the quality of the product. He also pointed out that raw oysters and clams are also technically alive when they’re eaten. Attempting to bring the argument home for consumers, Chan asked rhetorically: “If you’re going fishing, what is the first thing you are going to do with the fish? Smash his head and put it on the grill.”
Chan’s arguments fell on deaf—or disgusted—ears. The Bureau of Animal Welfare ordered Heat and Mirai to stop what they were doing, and both complied. PETA announced victory in the “Success Stories” section of its web site. Saying that chopping the heads off aquatic creatures behind the scenes hasn’t hurt his business—or the freshness of the fish, Chan concludes, “We live in the United States and we have to make everybody happy.”
The Influence of Activists
What does one trendy restaurant slightly altering its offerings have to do with the rest of the restaurant industry? As it turns out, a lot. As insignificant as this animal rights victory might seem to everyone but Chan and a small group of live-sashimi lovers, it’s a telling example of the unprecedented headway that animal welfare activists have made throughout the industry in the past few years.
Though top brass are loath to admit a direct connection, McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s all made changes to their animal welfare policies following campaigns by PETA—a group that openly and loudly states that “animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, or use for entertainment.” Its mission isn’t just vegetarian, it’s vegan—condemning the consumption of any animal products, including eggs, milk, and cheese.
What’s more, Burger King and the National Council of Chain Restaurants (NCCR) are now promoting even stricter guidelines and monitoring of the way food animals are raised and slaughtered. Gone are the days when operators could depend on the public to dismiss animal–rights groups as fringe oddballs, or simply claim animal welfare is a supplier issue.
For many restaurateurs, particularly the large chains who are easy targets for protestors, animal welfare has climbed up to the top of the public-policy priority list, alongside crime, accusations of promoting obesity, debates over smoking in restaurants, and threats of bioterrorism. With simply ignoring the situation no longer an option, operators tried just about everything, including—as with Burger King and NCCR—working for some of the same results as the animal rights activists themselves. As with those other hot-button issues, a growing number of operators have decided that the best way to deal with the activists is to band together as an industry.
Animal–rights groups are finally forcing the hands of restaurants and restaurants are quietly going along. Large chains are demanding audits of slaughterhouses to ensure that existing laws (like the one that states that cows and pigs must not be dismembered while still alive) are being obeyed and they’re calling for things like more room for chickens to move, and the end to the practice of forcing egg production by cutting off hens’ food.
Because such moves have clearly been low-key, you might say that restaurant chains appear to be playing a quiet game of If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em. On the surface, that might not seem like a bad approach for an operator. After all, recent stances taken by the industry have good PR value. They also take the pressure off restaurants, shifting reform responsibilities onto the shoulders of suppliers. Then again, it could also be making a pact with the devil. Animal–rights groups like PETA have a clear vegan agenda they’ve vowed to never abandon, and the industry could never acquiesce to that. Restaurants may be willing to satisfy today’s demands, but how about tomorrow’s? The situation poses an unpleasant question: Could this whole thing blow up in the industry’s face?
Playing into PETA’s Hands
In recent years, several major chains have played right into the hands of activists, even those activists who openly admit their divide and conquer approach.
“We can smear their symbols so that people choose to eat elsewhere,” explains Bruce Friedrich, PETA’s Vegan Campaign Coordinator. “We would not be nearly as successful in the mainstream if we told people ‘don’t eat anywhere.'”
To that end, in 1999, PETA called off two years of “negotiations” with McDonald’s and launched its McCruelty Campaign, which included noisy demonstrations at restaurants; a McCruelty web site featuring a bloodthirsty “Son of Ron” mascot; and billboards that featured a bloody, dismembered cow’s head along with the slogan, “Do you want fries with that?”
When McDonald’s came out with its new standards, PETA moved the show to Burger King (“Murder King,”), then to (“Wicked”) Wendy’s, where the group kicked off their protests at a store in Virginia at which Babe star James Cromwell was arrested. Even PETA’s more humorous tactics—members dressing up like fuzzy farm animals or stripping down to their birthday suits—seem to be effective. Like McDonald’s, both Burger King and Wendy’s announced new animal-welfare guidelines immediately following PETA campaigns. Now PETA has announced that they’ve begun writing letters to pizza companies demanding they force suppliers to upgrade their standards or risk similar treatment.
Caving to Activists
Some see such acquiescence on the part of chains to be little better than a sign of weakness. “The industry is so competitive that chains play into the tactics of PETA, one at a time,” grumbles Rick Berman, who heads up the Center for Consumer Freedom (formerly the Guest Choice Network), a group that forcefully advocates the public’s right to smoke, drink, and eat as it pleases. “There are people who feel that some of the companies should have taken a stronger stand,” he says.
Janet Riley, VP of public affairs for the American Meat Institute, says PETA has “come up with a fairly effective formula” that has “raised the profile of the issue.” She worries that the group provoked some companies to “out humane” each other. “It can start to raise the stakes,” she adds. “It’s a slippery slope.”
The stakes were raised [in] June  when Burger King announced what they called “industry-leading guidelines,” which will require the company’s suppliers to “adhere to the strictest standards” of animal welfare.
Did Burger King cave to activists? According to senior communications VP Rob Doughty, these measures were simply a result of the research and suggestions from its own Animal Well-Being Advisory Council, which is comprised of scientists, animal handling experts, and BK staffers.
“We had been watching the issue for some time,” he says, denying that the protestors spurred them on. “I know that they [PETA] make it look like we had serious conversations with them,” he adds. “We have chosen to be a leader in setting our own standards.” Regardless of the impetus, Doughty says the company “changed our thinking.”
Strengthening Animal Welfare
Indeed, the industry has come around to animal–rights groups’ ways of thinking through more than just the policy actions of one major chain. Recently, the National Council of Chain Restaurants and the Food Marketing Institute assembled an advisory panel to “identify issues and weaknesses” in current animal welfare standards. In late February 2002 the group released an interim report “on efforts to further develop and support food industry programs that strengthen animal welfare.” The group’s formation was a move that was “certainly driven by some publicity put on this by some activists groups,” says the Council’s president Terrie Dort.
But she insists that the steps were primarily motivated by revelations that “there are some things going on that shouldn’t be going on.” In addition, she says that informal surveys indicated that consumers—even meat eaters—cared about the issue, and would push for stricter animal welfare if they learned about mistreatment of farm animals.
In discussing treatment, companies are favoring what’s known as “science-based” standards—something they’re much more comfortable with than PETA’s stomach-turning descriptions of pregnant sows stuffed into cages and chickens with their beaks chopped off. As for PETA, Dort says it would be counterproductive to put people with a vegan agenda on the panel, but adds, “We see all of their information—we are aware of what they want and what their concerns are.”
Guided by other catchphrases like practical, tangible, measurable, and cost-effective, the panel is now also working with producers to come up with standards that are mutually agreeable for producers and operators—what McDonald’s senior director of social responsibility Bob Langert calls “a credible approach.” Burger King, McDonald’s, and the NCCR say that producers have been eager to work with them, as they were already working on new guidelines and procedures themselves. But eager though they may be, suppliers have little choice in the matter. By siding with the activists, the chains are forcing suppliers hands—they either go along or risk looking like animal torturers.
Producers are anxious to have a hand in shaping the guidelines that would be imposed on them by their restaurant customers—especially since compliance isn’t exactly optional. “If they don’t do it voluntarily, it will be mandated on them by their biggest customers,” says Dort.
Restaurants Should Stick Together
But the question that keeps rearing its head for suppliers and operators alike is where does it end? Dort hopes that an industry audit will be enough to reassure mainstream customers that adequate standards are being met and that they can dig into their meaty meals with clear consciences. After all, meat is still a very popular menu item in the U.S. But placating mainstream customers is one thing; satisfying PETA is something else. As Doughty puts it: “We have no intention of becoming Veggie King.”
Yet veritable Veggie Kings are exactly what groups like PETA want. While endorsing the changes that have been made thus far—including BK’s new Veggie burger—PETA’s Friedrich says the organization is still advocating further concessions from restaurant companies, including those that have already made changes (a PETA web page depicts Ronald McDonald behind bars and announces that McDonald’s is “on probation”). He won’t be satisfied until “no corporations are serving up animal products.”
How serious a threat is that? It depends who you ask. Berman’s Center for Consumer Freedom thought it was serious enough to mount an ad campaign that features some of PETA’s more inflammatory rhetoric in an attempt to portray them as extremists to the public. One ad quotes Friedrich making the statement: “It would be great if all the fast food outlets, slaughterhouses, these laboratories, and the banks that fund them exploded tomorrow.” The group’s web site discourages consumers from supporting PETA by drawing links between the group and violent animal rights and environmentalist groups—of course, PETA denies the connections.
Left- and right-wing histrionics aside the worst scenario for operators and producers is the best scenario for for the activists—a failure on the part of the industry to continue to act together. McDonald’s Langert stresses that the more operators and producers that agree to adopt certain standards, the more efficient the entire process will be. Seconds BK’s Doughty: “The food industry would do best to develop a common set of standards so that everybody is on the same playing field.” In other words: don’t divide and you’re less likely to be conquered.