Is this a case of corporate compassion or just slick PR?
Even by the lightning-fast standards of social media and viral videos, it was enough to make your head spin: No sooner had the activist group Mercy for Animals released a sickening undercover video showing abhorrent treatment of chickens at a Tennessee factory farm that supplies poultry for McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets than both McDonald’s and Tyson Foods, which makes the famed nuggets for the fast-food giant, announced they had severed ties with the offender.
“Based on what we currently know, we are terminating the farmer’s contract to grow chickens for us,” a Tyson spokesman said in a statement. For its part, McDonald’s called the video evidence “unacceptable” and said the company is “committed to working with animal welfare and industry experts to inform our policies that promote better management, strong employee education, and verification practices.”
No doubt the video footage released by Mercy for Animals, which is among the growing number of animal rights groups using ever smaller and more sophisticated digital technology to bring such inhumane conditions on factory farms to light, ranks among the more disturbing in a stomach-turning genre whose power to disgust can be rated by just how many minutes (or seconds) you can watch before having to turn it off.
Here we see an employee of T&S Farm in Dukedom, Tennessee, ask the undercover investigator, “You don’t work for PETA, do you?” before clobbering a chicken with a pole affixed with a metal spike. Another worker strides among the flock of overcrowded birds forced to live atop their own feces, stabbing them with his own spiked pole and tossing them, half dead, into a bucket swinging from his arm as if he were picking up trash along the side of the highway. The birds are also trampled by workers and tossed violently into transport crates, breaking their bones.
It was undoubtedly these images of inexcusable and unmitigated cruelty that prompted both Tyson and McDonald’s to move so quickly—and publicly—to cut their ties with the farm, but here’s where things get tricky. In its statement, McDonald’s says, “We’re committed to animal well-being but don’t believe this video accurately depicts the treatment of chickens by the thousands of farmers who supply us.”
Sure, both McDonald’s and Tyson can arguably make a case that, say, clubbing chickens with spiked poles is outlier behavior they plausibly had no knowledge of and don’t condone. But if either company had ever inspected T&S Farm at all, there’s no way they could be ignorant of the chronic day-to-day suffering clearly inflicted on the animals there, such as being forced to live in filthy, suffocating, overcrowded conditions and to feed amid the corpses of other birds—conditions that are, after all, more or less endemic at factory farms all across the country.
Thus, what at first may appear like an impressively swift victory for Mercy for Animals and the animal welfare movement at large could very well end up a textbook example for corporate PR flaks on how to deftly defuse a potential crisis. By summarily dropping T&S Farm as a supplier, McDonald’s and Tyson make it seem like they’ve adopted some sort of zero-tolerance stance against animal abuse—something with which millions of chickens out there condemned to the status quo misery of so-called life on factory farms would likely disagree.