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It’s funny how McDonald’s — the much-reviled little hamburger stand that grew — has become the world’s handiest barometer of social change. It is the standard-bearer, or more often the whipping boy, for economic and cultural globalization, with progress or regress thereto measured in degrees of “McDonaldization.” According to economist Thomas Friedman, it is the unwitting harbinger of a new world order in international affairs. No two countries that have opened their doors to McDonald’s, he says, have since gone to war with each other. And now, the burger behemoth is at the leading edge of another wave of change: the slowly evolving concept of animal rights.

Last month, the chain announced plans to improve the way U.S. poultry farmers care for their hens — something it is well-placed to do, since it buys 1.5 billion eggs from them annually. McDonald’s has told suppliers that its continued custom depends on their compliance with strict new regulations: Each caged hen must be given 50 percent more space; the withholding of food and water to enhance egg production is banned; and the practice of cutting off the overcrowded birds’ beaks to stop them pecking each other to death is to be phased out.

This is not a first. The European Union has already banned nonfeeding and requires the phase-out of all cages by 2012. But it is a giant step in the United States, where the government has lagged far behind industry in following the European trend of regulating the way food animals are raised. The significance of it is that McDonald’s’ sheer size and high global profile has the potential of turning the trend into standard practice worldwide.

As in Europe, McDonald’s has been at pains to emphasize the human-health benefits of regulating animal care more stringently (in the case of chickens, for example, stressed birds are now thought to be more vulnerable to salmonella infection). This is probably necessary if industries are to accept changes that will make their produce more expensive. But it is surely secondary. What if better conditions did not benefit human health? Would that make it all right to lock a full-grown hen into a space smaller than the area of this editorial, or not feed it for up to two weeks to make it lay more eggs? The issue here is not human health; it is, as McDonald’s has also belatedly recognized, how human beings can even think of doing such things to other living creatures.

And that, of course, is where the real revolution is taking place: in the way we think about animals and their place in the human scheme. As a species, we have long exhibited a peculiarly schizophrenic attitude to animals: On the one hand, we idolize and anthropomorphize our pets, wax sentimental about endangered wildlife (while continuing the habits that have endangered them) and make fetishes of racehorses and show breeds. On the other hand, we think nothing of eating a still-squirming fish or the near-raw flesh of a quickly seared cow, which we know has experienced the highest degree of fear and pain during its trip from pasture to plate. We pay a small fortune to pamper an exotic parrot while turning a blind eye to the well-documented agonies of battery chickens. We shoot deer in cold blood and weep over Bambi. Why is one animal our furry friend, another our food? Where is the logic?

There is no logic, but there is certainly a history. According to Harvard law professor Steven Wise, author of a recent, seminal book on the legal rights of animals, it took humanity centuries to extend the concept of what the U.N. convention against torture calls “the inherent dignity of the human person” even to all human beings. Slaves, conscripts, convicts and native peoples were perceived as beyond the pale of the species, fair game for the gallows, the lash, forced labor and other forms of mistreatment. (Prisoners and fetuses still occupy a gray area in some countries, including Japan.) To an 18th-century European, a slave ship, with all its cruelties, would have been no less utilitarian than a slaughterhouse is today. A century ago, how many women could vote? A decade ago, how many South Africans could? Evidently, the pale can shift.

Wise’s point is that just as attitudes to slavery and torture and voting rights evolved, so will attitudes toward the selective mistreatment of animals. In fact, it is beginning to happen. The Buddhist-like recognition that “inherent dignity” is a property of all sentient beings, not just humans, is at the root of the European animal-rights movement that is making people rethink everything from fox-hunting and fur coats to diet and zoos . . . and chicken farms. Seen in this context, some cynics have already said, McDonald’s may just be sensing which way the wind is blowing and making a shrewd public-relations move before it has to. But if you were a chicken, would you care?

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