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PETA vs. McDonald's: The Nicest Way to Kill a Chicken

As of this week, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has ended its truce with McDonald's. For nine years, PETA was working with the burger chain "to modernize the company's animal welfare standards and make further improvements" according to PETA's "McCruelty" site, but now the group has lost its patience.

At issue is the least cruel way to kill a chicken. Most chickens in the United States are shackled upside-down while fully conscious, then run through an electrically-charged tub of water to knock them out before they're slaughtered. But PETA says this method only immobilizes the birds, and they can still feel pain. Instead, PETA endorses using gas to kill the chickens before they're processed.

McDonald's, PETA says, "lags behind" its competitors in switching over to the gas method, known as "controlled atmosphere killing," or CAK. Burger King, Carl's Jr., Hardee's and Wendy's "are now giving purchasing preference or consideration" to suppliers that use CAK, according to a PETA press release.

McDonald's actually studied the issue and released a report in 2005. According to PETA, the report (which is available online) states unequivocally that CAK is "far better for animals than the current slaughter method." What the report actually said, however, is that it was "premature" to jump to gas, as the method was "still in the early stage of development," but that McDonald's would keep an eye on it in the future.

The report wasn't about just controlled atmosphere killing (CAK), but about the more general subject of controlled atmosphere stunning (CAS), which includes methods that gas chickens until they're unconscious but not actually dead. CAK and CAS are used more regularly in Europe, and McDonald's consulted suppliers there that use these methods.

One of the big advantages of CAS, it found, is that workers aren't struggling to shackle live chickens. From a business perspective, that means fewer worker injuries and the ability to put the chickens through the assembly line more efficiently. From an animal-lovers perspective, it also protects chickens from the sadism of bored factory workers.

The disadvantages, of course, are cost-related. Gas systems require more worker training and take up more space. PETA has long made the case that companies recoup these costs quickly because processing dead chickens is so much easier and more efficient than processing live ones -- and it backs up its case with quotes from a variety of companies that have made the switch and been happy with it.

But McDonald's isn't buying that argument, apparently -- nor is KFC, which PETA has been protesting and putting pressure on for years, with no results, at least in the U.S.

And the National Chicken Council insists there is no proven animal welfare benefit to CAS. Conventional stunning is "both effective and humane," it says, while gassed chickens may suffer horribly as they're being cruelly suffocated.

That part -- the gassing part -- is not shown in the PETA video that contrasts the stunning process with the process of cutting chickens that are already dead. And there are animal rights advocates who acknowledge that the gassing process can be quite horrible. The McDonald's report even touched on the issue that while gassing might be simple and humane on a small scale, things can go wrong once it's implemented in larger operations.

A member of McDonald's Animal Welfare Council described how chickens suffer if the gas levels aren't correct. Both systems can have problems, she told the Chicago Tribune. In the end, though, she favored the gas method, saying, "I'd like to see someone in the industry put up a full-scale commercial plant and make it work."

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