PETA ruffles feathers
Graphic protests aimed at customers haven't pushed KFC to change suppliers' slaughterhouse rules
By Andrew Martin
August 6, 2005
LANSING, Mich. -- The front lines of a high-stakes food fight moved recently to a sidewalk in front of a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant, where young volunteers from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals tried to shock and disgust lunch-hour patrons.
There was a PETA intern dressed in a bloodied chicken costume, a 22-year-old with shocking pink hair and the word "VEGAN" tattooed across her chest in gothic lettering, and campaign coordinator Ben Goldsmith with a flat-screen television strapped to his chest.
"That bird is having its thigh sliced open while fully conscious," Goldsmith said, narrating a grisly video as KFC customer Tiffany Mueller looked on, gnawing on a piece of chicken.
"It all tastes the same to me," Mueller said.
As unorthodox as it may sound, the protest against KFC represents what has been a highly successful formula for PETA, an organization founded in 1980 that is perhaps best known for tactics such as throwing red paint on fur coats and comparing the slaughter of livestock to the Holocaust.
In addition to such clever gimmicks as dressing vegan models in lettuce bikinis, PETA has used media savvy, a stable of celebrity advocates and a sophisticated Internet operation to try to change the behavior of consumers and some of America's largest corporations, including fast-food chains.
McDonald's, for one, made wholesale changes in the way it treats farm animals after animal-welfare activists, including PETA, highlighted abuses. Burger King and Wendy's did the same after PETA launched campaigns called "Murder King" and "Wicked Wendy's."
Taking a stand
What makes the KFC campaign unique is that the chicken chain has refused to submit to PETA's demands, which include stopping the use of growth-enhancing antibiotics and using gas, rather than electric shocks and sharp knives, to kill chickens. As a result, company executives have been doused with fake blood, criticized by the likes of Pamela Anderson, Al Sharpton and the Dalai Lama, and continually subjected to the circuslike atmosphere of PETA protests at its restaurants.
In Ft. Wayne, Ind., for example, a PETA intern dressed in a chicken suit spent an hour-long protest in a wheelchair, going back and forth through a busy intersection. The "stunt boy" from local radio station "Wild 96.3" trailed the intern, holding out a bucket of chicken and asking, "Is this your brother or your aunt?"
Asked to respond to PETA's "Kentucky Fried Cruelty" campaign, which began in January 2003, spokeswoman Virginia Ferguson said, "KFC is committed to the well-being and humane treatment of chickens.... We are proud of our responsible, industry-leading animal-welfare guidelines."
Company officials declined further comment, other than to refer to the animal-welfare guidelines available on the company's Web site. They highlight KFC's audits of slaughterhouses and farms, and the site states that, working with its Animal Welfare Advisory Council, KFC has devised quantifiable standards for the treatment of chickens.
The Web site does not mention that several members of the advisory council, formed in late 2000, quit in frustration because of the lack of progress and because they had to sign a strict confidentiality agreement.
Animal-welfare groups, which started in England in the 1820s, did not focus on fast-food restaurants until the 1990s, when two London activists distributed leaflets titled "What's Wrong with McDonald's?"
In a libel suit filed against the protesters, the judge ruled in favor of McDonald's on most counts, though he did conclude that McDonald's suppliers mistreated animals. Because of the judge's findings, PETA launched a "McCruelty" campaign in which protesters passed out an "Unhappy Meal" that contained plastic animals covered in fake blood.
McDonald's agreed to major animal-welfare changes in 2000, including audits of slaughterhouses to ensure that animals were treated humanely and refusing to buy from suppliers that cut off chickens' beaks. PETA called a moratorium to its campaign 11 months later, though McDonald's officials insist the protests did not trigger the changes.
Regardless, in the years since, McDonald's has emerged as an industry leader in animal welfare. Its decision to conduct slaughterhouse audits prompted more positive changes in that industry "than I'd seen in a 25-year career," said Temple Grandin, an animal-welfare expert who consulted for McDonald's and other fast-food chains.
After the McDonald's campaign ended, PETA wrote other major fast-food chains requesting that they implement similar animal-welfare protocols.
"Our expectation after the McDonald's campaign was that the corporations would trip over themselves to make similar changes," said Bruce Friedrich, PETA's director of vegan campaigns. "Instead, the corporations took a wait-and-see attitude."
PETA responded with the "Murder King" campaign against Burger King and "Wicked Wendy's" protests against Wendy's hamburgers. Both chains eventually followed the lead of McDonald's.
Richard Berman, executive director of the Center for Consumer Freedom, an advocacy group funded by the food and restaurant industry, argued that PETA simply accelerated changes fast-food restaurants would have made anyway.
When PETA demands more costly changes, such as that KFC gas its chickens instead of stunning them, they are not nearly so successful, he said.
"I think they'll be screaming about it for a very long time," Berman said, adding that the campaign would not influence many consumers. "Pam Anderson as a spokesperson for anything that is thoughtful is a joke. I think PETA is largely seen as being a somewhat bizarre organization."
Most chickens in the United States are killed in the same manner, whether sold by KFC, McDonald's or a local grocery. They are hung upside down, knocked unconscious with an electrical stunner, slashed across the throat with a knife and then dunked into a tub of boiling water to remove their feathers.
The Humane Slaughter Act, passed by Congress in 1958, dictates that livestock must be unconscious before the fatal blow is delivered. However, for reasons that remain unclear, chickens were exempted from the act.
PETA alleges that many chickens still are conscious when their throats are slashed or when they are dunked in the boiling water. In a graphic undercover video that PETA says it shot last year at a KFC supplier in West Virginia, slaughterhouse workers are shown slamming chickens against a wall and stomping on them.
Using gas, rather than electric shocks, would ensure that all the chickens are dead before a worker touches them, PETA says. PETA also demands that KFC's suppliers stop practices that cause chickens to grow so fast that they barely can stand.
"More than 850 million chickens spend their entire lives in conditions that would warrant felony cruelty to animals charges if they were cats and dogs," Friedrich said.
The organization is targeting KFC because it is the largest fast-food chicken chain and because the company promised to "raise the bar" on chicken welfare and then reneged, Friedrich said.
KFC formed an animal advisory panel to come up with new standards. But in the last year or so at least four members of the board have quit.
"They never had any meetings. They never asked any advice, and then they touted to the press that they had this animal-welfare advisory committee," said Adele Douglass, executive director of the non-profit group Humane Farm Animal Care, who quit the advisory committee in 2003. "I felt like I was being used."
Asked to assess PETA's impact on animal-welfare changes in the fast-food business, Grandin, who also quit the advisory panel, said: "The way I look at it is, heat softens steel. And when steel is soft, you can bend that steel into constructive shapes."
On a blazing afternoon in Lansing, Ben Goldsmith and his colleagues are doing their best to bend the minds of KFC customers. Two PETA interns take turns wearing the chicken suit, which can be stifling in the summer heat.
Goldsmith called local PETA members ahead of time, so in Lansing and Ft. Wayne, about a half-dozen joined the protest to pass out literature or hold up signs that said "Beaks Cut Off," "Scalded Alive" or "KFC Tortures Chickens."
The protests elicited both honks of support and angry shouts from passing cars, from "Get a Life!" to "Eat Meat!"
Because Goldsmith also called local media, including talk radio, the protests drew people who wanted simply to register disdain for PETA.
"I like chicken, but I came out here primarily for PETA," said Tony Bair, a 56-year-old architect in Lansing who is particularly incensed by PETA's opposition to using animals in medical research.
"When they place higher value on a lab rat than a child, I have a problem with that," he said. "If killing 1,000 rabbits in a lab gives a cure that saves one child, that's a good trade to me."
But the protesters also scored some successes, and in Ft. Wayne when Goldsmith showed his video to three KFC customers, they groaned and grimaced during the graphic parts.
Still, the young men shrugged off what they had seen.
"When there's world peace, we can worry about chickens," said 19-year-old Alan McGee.