Main Page CJLY
Deconstructing Dinner: Reconstructing Our Food System
recent showslisten live
Read a Transcript & Donate to Support our Work:

The following transcript is protected under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.

Link to Audio and Episode Info Here

Show Transcript

Deconstructing Dinner

Kootenay Co-op Radio CJLY

Nelson, B.C. Canada

 

August 9, 2007

 

Title: Personal vs. Corporate Responsibility

 

Producer/Host: Jon Steinman

Transcript: Ruth Taylor

 

Jon Steinman: And welcome to Deconstructing Dinner, a weekly one-hour radio program and podcast produced at Kootenay Co-op Radio CJLY in Nelson, British Columbia. I'm Jon Steinman, your host for the next hour.

 

Each week on this program we explore how our food choices impact ourselves, our communities and our planet. And this more conscious approach to eating is certainly a growing trend here in North America, especially since the heavily exposed issue of climate change.

 

But it's this more conscientious approach to eating that no doubt has many of us overwhelmed with a task that really is ... overwhelming. The way we eat here in Canada and around the world is very much a part of our culture, it's a part of how we live, and to begin questioning our food on an ongoing basis is essentially questioning who we are and how we exist on this planet. For those of you who caught our most recent broadcast titled Slow is Beautiful, this was very much the theme of that show: that food is a metaphor for life.

 

And so as has been the most common response to this desire to eat more responsibly, many people are beginning to look to eating more local food, which when such a task is undertaken, can introduce a host of insights into our dominant food system that has made it very difficult for local foods to even exist. Now I know on a personal level, I make very conscious efforts to eat locally, but it is, needless to say, very difficult within a food system that has become so centralized and industrial in nature, that many of the foods we are so used to eating are indeed not available from close to home.

 

And so this realization that I for one, and I know many others have begun to recognize, is that a real feeling of guilt can overcome such conscientious eating whereby here we are wanting to eat local food, but there's not much of it out there. And the content of today's broadcast will address this dilemma, this dilemma of what really is a question of responsibility. Should it be you and I who feel personally responsible for being unable to eat a socially and environmentally responsible diet, or, on the other hand, should those who have created our dominant food system be responsible themselves, that is a food system which is incredibly taxing on this planet, on communities around the world and on our health.

 

Well of course the easy answer is both, we need to certainly take responsibility for having perhaps not been so mindful in the past and present of what it is we have and continue to eat, but the large influential corporations controlling most of the planet's food supply should also maintain considerable responsibility. And there are many advocates out there who demand that corporations themselves should bear the brunt of such responsibility. Our conscientious food choices are after all up against billions of dollars of advertising, full-time aggressive political lobbying, intense competition that pushes small scale farmers and producers out of business, and a level of deceit that is often made apparent here on this program and will become even more apparent following today's broadcast.

 

And that's the title of today's broadcast Personal versus Corporate Responsibility, and to make what is a very open-ended topic a little more digestible, we will use one company as the focus for this exploration, and that is McDonald's a company we oddly enough, rarely feature or even mention here on Deconstructing Dinner, and a company that is argued by many, is the founder of our modern industrial food system that breeds uniformity rather than choice.

 

In the next hour we will hear the voices of author Eric Schlosser, most well-known for his 2001 bestseller Fast Food Nation, and we will hear the voice of Bob Langert, the Vice-President of Corporate Social Responsibility for McDonald's Corporation.

 

increase music and fade out

 

Jon Steinman: When we speak about our dominant food system and look closer into the impacts the operations of these powerful agricultural and food companies have on the planet, we of course, as the eaters of such food shouldn't simply pass the blame off to the companies. But using McDonald's as a case in point, here is a company that continues to knowingly operate using unsustainable and destructive practices, and is never placed into a position of having to use their power to reverse the damage they have caused. Using the example of trans fats it is now not debatable that this ingredient found in many foods is indeed toxic to humans and is being pulled out of the food supply. Studies have shown that tens of thousands of people die from trans fats related ailments every year, and McDonald's continues to use trans fats even though almost five years ago they said that they would be removed. So when a company like McDonald's continues to market and promote these trans fats using billions of dollars of revenues, should it continue to be society itself that bears the cost and responsibility of such damage.

 

Now this is one way to introduce a term that is becoming more recognized to many, and that is corporate responsibility it's a term now being used in almost every major corporation as a means to identify the role of companies in acting in the public's best interest. A number of companies now employ entire departments headed by an executive in charge of corporate responsibility, and in the case of McDonald's' this man is Bob Langert, Vice-President of Corporate Social Responsibility. Now back in November 2006 Princeton University (located in New Jersey) hosted a conference that invited the most well-known names in the world of food activism and the conference was titled, Food, Ethics and the Environment. Now almost all of the speakers attending the conference including the audience itself, were probably the most outspoken critics of industrial agriculture and the food system it feeds. But that didn't stop Bob Langert from agreeing to appear at the conference to speak about McDonald's role as a socially responsible company.

 

Bob spoke alongside well-known author Michael Pollan, who's most recent book The Omnivore's Dilemma has no doubt had a significant impact on the way people eat, and we'll hear a few comments from Michael as well.

 

But opening up the conference on the previous day was another well-known author who has changed the way many North Americans eat as well, and that is Eric Schlosser, who released his book Fast Food Nation in 2001. The book was most recently converted into a feature-length film, and I do highly recommend reading and watching both versions of this critical analysis of the fast food industry.

 

Eric is perhaps known to McDonald's as enemy number one, and his presentation at the Princeton conference chose to use McDonald's as an example of a company that he argues is systematically destroying human health, the environment and culture. He has never had the opportunity to speak on a panel with McDonald's executives in the United States, and so on today's show we will kind of give him that chance, as following the first half of the broadcast where we will listen to arguments and suggestions made by Schlosser himself, we will then listen in on Bob Langert, and how he responds to strong questions from the audience during his presentation the following day of the conference.

 

Now it's rather surprising that here on Deconstructing Dinner we have yet to do a feature on this company that is no doubt the most scrutinized and criticized restaurant chain on the planet. We did feature the company back in February 2006 when we analyzed the role of McDonald's in sponsoring the Olympic Games, but Eric Schlosser looks at this company in a different light, as it's McDonald's he suggests that has created the food system we now live among today. McDonald's is most often criticized for the nutritional composition of the food they market to children, the environmental impact of their packaging and the welfare of the animals that end up in their sandwiches. But if McDonald's is indeed the founder of our modern food system then, perhaps we need to look more closely at whether the company should be held responsible for helping create such a system and whether they should then hold the responsibility to reverse the system they have had such a heavy hand in creating.

 

Now one could argue that McDonald's has just been doing business as usual, but as Eric Schlosser will point out in this first clip, the company's evolution to become as influential on society as it is today wasn't simply happenstance, but was the intention all along by founder Ray Kroc. And here's Eric Schlosser, introducing a statement by McDonald's founder Ray Kroc that is, as you will probably find, rather scary.

 

Eric Schlosser: I'm going to read you a quote from Ray Kroc that I think tells you a great deal about this culture and the impact it would have not only on this country but on the rest of the world. So this is the founder of the McDonald's Corporation, Ray Kroc, "We have found out that we cannot trust some people who are non-conformists we will make conformists out of them in a hurry. The organization cannot trust the individual; the individual must trust the organization."

 

The system that Kroc laid down for McDonald's was all about uniformity, conformity and centralized control of production. And the key to the success of McDonald's as it spread was its ability to serve the same food that tasted the same way and was made the same way at thousands of identical locations and this has had a profound impact on our food system in a very brief period of time. Now when there were just a handful of McDonald's in the 1950's it really didn't have a big impact on how food is produced in the United States and as recently as 1968 which was 20 years after the creation of McDonald's there were only a thousands McDonald's restaurants, and in a country of this size having a thousands restaurants doesn't change how food is produced. Well today there are thirty thousand McDonald's restaurants half of them in the United States and today McDonald's is largest purchaser of beef in the United States and the largest purchaser of pork and of chicken and of potatoes, these are the staples of the American diet. It's also now the largest purchaser of lettuce and even of apples in the United States and McDonald's has a world wide impact McDonald's is the biggest purchaser of agricultural products in France, an unexpected place for it to have this kind of power.

 

Now their needs have largely determined how these foods are produced whether they are sold at McDonald's or not because this is the biggest purchaser and McDonald's has pushed centralization, concentration and industrialization in everyone of these markets for every one of these commodities again its need, speed, efficiency, cheapness, uniformity, conformity. And it really pushed the application for a factory system and factory values toward the production of livestock in particular. Those photographs you saw those things didn't exist 35-45 years ago, those factory farms. When McDonald's was in it's early stages, in the 1960's, McDonald's bought fresh ground beef from 175 different meat suppliers throughout the United States but as it decided to grow and grow quickly in the 1970's it switched from fresh ground beef to frozen ground beef. It cut back from 175 suppliers to only five suppliers and it wanted a product of ground beef that was uniform that tasted everywhere exactly the same. And McDonald's really played a large role in the consolidation of the meat packing industry in the United States. In the early 1970's there were thousands of slaughterhouses in this country. Today there are 13 slaughterhouses that process the majority of the beef consumed by 300 million people, 13 buildings, really really big buildings.

 

Jon Steinman: The industrial food system that McDonald's has had a critical role in creating has come with a host of devastating impacts on a number of levels. One of these most apparent impacts took place less than a year ago, when virtually all spinach across North America was pulled off of grocery store shelves and restaurant menus following the contamination of spinach with E. coli originating from animal waste. Author Eric Schlosser comments on the safety of this food system that McDonald's' has helped create, a food system that has itself introduced food-borne illnesses that never before existed.

 

Eric Schlosser: There has been a huge rise in food borne illness in the last 30-40 years that has gone alongside the introduction of this industrial system. You would think that as the latest science and technology is being applied to food production our food would be getting safer but the opposite has occurred and the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 76 million Americans are food poisoned every year and that's probably a conservative estimate. This industrialized system is perfect in many ways for spreading disease far and wide and I mentioned cattle living in one another's filth is very similar to the sanitary conditions of medieval cities when people would just dump their chamber pot out the window into the streets, it was a perfect way to cause epidemics.

 

The hamburger is a fundamentally new thing, the fast food hamburger. We've been eating hamburgers for generations but if you bought a hamburger 30 or 40 years ago from the small butchers shop that one patty probably had pieces of one cow or one steer in it because it was made up from little scraps of little leftover meat at the butcher shop. When you get a fast food hamburger today it probably has pieces of a thousand or more different cattle from as many as five different countries. This is a perfect vector for spreading disease.

 

How does it work? Well think of it this way if you're in a monogamous relationship with your partner for many years it's unlikely that you will catch a sexually transmitted disease but if you were exposing yourself to thousands of different partners on a daily basis where your odds go up significantly. So it matters to you if there are pieces of a thousand different cattle in each one of those little hamburger patties. If you eat it make sure it's been cooked really well.

 

This new industrialized system has proven to be an ideal system for spreading newly emerged pathogens such as E. coli 0157:H7 which is spread by cattle fecal material it was linked up until recently only with hamburgers now its being linked also to spinach. In Fast Food Nation I wrote about how there shit in the meat now there's also shit in the spinach but there are also entirely new diseases like Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, Mad Cow Disease created by the brilliant idea of feeding cattle the other cattle as a cheap form of protein again cheapness and efficiency being the overriding values. Well we've outlawed the feeding of dead cattle to cattle in this country but cattle are still being fed cattle blood, cattle are still being fed the waste from poultry slaughter houses and poultry are being fed the waste from cattle slaughterhouses. And even more disturbing the same companies that make poultry feed like Tyson also happen to slaughter poultry so one of the principle protein sources being fed to chicken is dead chicken in this country at the moment. This is an attitude toward livestock and an attitude against consumers that is totally driven by efficiency and cheapness and no other consideration.

 

The other human impact of this system has been an obesity epidemic. An obesity epidemic that has taken hold in precisely the same years as this industrial system, this fast food system, over the last 30 years. And when you look at these fast foods they're carefully scientifically designed to taste good and to make you want to eat them again and again. They tend to be high in fat, high in salt, high in sugar, high in calories, low in fiber, low in micronutrients this is the perfect food to make you unhealthy if you eat it regularly and in large amounts.

 

Jon Steinman: And this is Deconstructing Dinner and you've been listening to author Eric Schlosser speaking in November 2006 at a conference hosted at Princeton University in New Jersey. Eric is the author of Fast Food Nation - The Dark Side of the All American Meal. And today's broadcast is titled, Personal versus Corporate Responsibility and is raising the question of who should be responsible for the damage that our industrial food system causes on a daily basis. Whether it's damage to our heath, our communities or the planet, all of us need to take individual responsibility for our purchases, but when the vast majority of choices now available are those that are part of this industrial food system, Eric Schlosser suggests that it's time corporations use their power to address the many injustices committed each day. He further suggests that it's delusional to think that by only changing the way we eat, we will change the world.

 

Eric Schlosser: So, what is to be done? Well one thing I want to comment on for the last 25 years we have been preached a gospel of personal responsibility and personal freedom. That is what has been drummed into our heads for the last 25 years personal responsibility. And I believe in that, I believe in personal responsibility and personal freedom but I'm now worried that my own work has stressed that element too much. And this whole idea that every purchase that you make is a vote and that every purchase that you make has a ripple effect and that we all must be responsible and ethical consumers. Well I agree with that but at the same time there's a pressure on all of us to be pure, to be morally pure, to think that we're really going to change the world by what we buy and even in professor Singer's summation it gets really hard to be pure, it's complicated, well should I be buying organic? Or local? Or what should I do? The pressure's on us. I think what we buy can make a difference and that we are responsible and that we do have an ethic obligation but I think that changing the world by what you buy is only going to go so far and it only works to a point and after that point I think it's delusion that as consumers we're going to change this system fundamentally or we're going to change the world. Missing from the discourse, missing from the dialogue over the last 25 years have been a couple of other phrases, one of them is corporate responsibility and the other one is collective responsibility and I stand here honestly saying that I'm not pure, my purchases are not ideal and maybe some of you in this room are pure but it's hard to be pure in this country in the year 2006. But ultimately the problems that Professor Singer outlined and I've tried to outline are not due to individual faults, they're really not. They have been caused by big systems. System of belief, systems of production, systems of making a profit, and without looking at this from a systematic approach there is no possibility of meaningful change. Each one of us here in this room could go back to the land, move to New Hope, outside New Hope or find some land in Eastern Pennsylvania grow our own food and live off the grid but each one of us living pure isn't going to change this system at all. If our government doesn't change our policies, if our government doesn't change any of its subsidies what we do as consumers isn't going to make a profound difference. And I think we cannot allow this movement surrounding ethical eating to focus only on our personal responsibility and on consumer power.

 

I debated the president of McDonald's in the United Kingdom earlier this year, he seemed like a really nice guy, this is not about him being a bad guy its not like there are a half a dozen bad guys and if we deal with them everything's going to be all right the president of McDonald's U.K. could be replaced tomorrow afternoon its not going to change that company its not going to change that system. The head of McDonald's Corporate Social Responsibility is coming to this conference tomorrow. I really wish that I could have debated him I guess that's just not to be, no one from McDonald's has ever agreed to appear with me publicly in the United States. And he is no different, he may be a really nice guy but it's not about him it's about a system that rewards cheapness, efficiency and speed that has a very narrow measure of what's efficient and that allows corporate companies like his to impose their business costs on the rest of us.

 

Now you know when Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, chemical companies could just dump their chemicals in a stream and if people were sickened down stream the company didn't have to pay for it. And one of the big triumphs of the environmental movement was by forcing these sorts of air polluters and water polluters to assume their external cost to internalize them and not impose them on society. And I think that's what we have to do with these food companies now make them pay for these costs that they're imposing on society. It's very much in the interest of these large corporations to stress the idea of personal responsibility because it gets them completely off the hook and they can even cite opinion polls of what people want. Well these personal choices that are at the heart of the business at the heart of their business model are being made in an environment in which their mass marketing is having a huge impact on what people think of as their personal choices and personal responsibility.

 

I mean McDonald's is targeting children as young as eight months old, nine months old. This industry is systematically targeting toddlers and young teens and trying to affect peoples attitudes and their eating habits, literally eight months old. McDonald's and Burger King have done promotions with Teletubbies which are fictional characters aimed at preverbal children, or stoned college students.

 

Jon Steinman: And you're listening to author Eric Schlosser here on Deconstructing Dinner. Later on today's broadcast we will hear from another speaker who was invited to this Princeton University conference titled Food, Ethics and the Environment, and that is Bob Langert, Vice-President of Corporate Social Responsibility for McDonald's. Bob fielded a number of questions from the audience following his presentation, and we will take a listen to some of those questions and answers to help deconstruct the efforts McDonald's is taking to be responsible for their actions. We will also briefly take a look at one organization, The Centre for Consumer Freedom, a front group for the food industry that disagrees with the idea of corporate responsibility and instead promotes personal responsibility for what people choose to eat.

 

Now author Eric Schlosser was not speaking on the same panel as Bob Langert, but he did address his upcoming appearance the following day, and in doing so suggested a number of questions that he would have posed had he the opportunity to be on the same panel. Schlosser also insinuates that the only reason the many large food companies can continue to operate the way they do, is because of big budgets, and what they now don't have on their side, is the truth.

 

Eric Schlosser: If you just look and I'm going to talk about McDonald's a lot because this executive will be here tomorrow and I won't and I hope some of you will ask some tough questions. Fast Food Nation came out in 2001 in the years since Fast Food Nation came out McDonald's has spent roughly 18-20 billion dollars just advertising it's food and I can tell you my book didn't have a marketing budget any where near that size and I promise you if you gave me 20 billion dollars I could probably get people to eat just about anything so it's very easy to put the onus on people and their choices and their eating habits but when your targeting toddlers and spending billions of dollars a year trying to effect their behavior, I think that's a cop out.

 

The opponents of this system like Professor Singer, like Professor Marion Nestle who's here today, like myself we don't have any where near this amount of money at our disposal but its remarkable to me how much is changing and how fast it's changing and how these companies are on the run. And I would argue the reason these companies are on the run is they have the money they just don't have the facts, they just don't have the truth on their side, and they are desperately spinning and trying to persuade people they do. The fact that there's even a Vice President of Social Responsibility at McDonald's to me is a joke. And he may be a lovely guy and I hope if you see him tomorrow you'll ask him things like this because he's in charge of social responsibility.

 

Is it socially responsible for a company to shut down a restaurant immediately as soon as it's worker vote to join a union? McDonald's has done that at least three occasions. Is it socially responsible to use private investigators to investigate the critics of your company? To spy on your critics? To harass your critics as they did to the green peace activists in England? Is it socially responsible to continue selling products full of a toxic substance called trans fats?

 

The Institute of Medicine, a branch of the Nation Academy of Sciences, came out with a study in 2002 that said trans fats, these cheap industrial fats widely used by fast food chains and particularly by McDonald's. The Institute of Medicine came out with a study four and a half years ago said these were toxics and there was no safe amount for human beings to consume. One study has estimated that thirty thousand Americans die every year simply because of trans fat consumption. Another study in the New England Journal of Medicine this spring concluded as many as 200 thousand heart attacks a year are caused in this country by trans fat consumption. Now McDonald's said in 2002 it would stop using trans fats, four and a half years later it hasn't and I'd love to ask him tomorrow well you know your public statements say you don't want to change the taste of the french fries which the trans fats are responsible for but I've studied McDonald's and McDonald's is using all different kinds of cooking oils all over the world and french fries taste pretty good in whatever kind of oil you cook them in so why is McDonald's no longer using trans fats in Denmark where they were band two years ago and I haven't heard of any McDonald's shutting down in Copenhagen but for four and a half years have continued to sell this product to most Americans who have been unaware how many people have died as a result.

 

I mean in this country in America right now if it was a foreign government responsible for 30 thousand deaths a year and 200 thousand heart attacks and casualties we would bomb the hell out of them. We wouldn't praise them for small steps on the road to social responsibility and I would conclude by asking him, is it socially responsible to buy chicken and beef from Tyson? And to buy pork from Smithfield Farms? Given the fact that Tyson and Smithfield Farms are treating their meat packing workers almost as badly as they're treating there animals and that we truly have sweatshop conditions in meat packing in the United States that Upton Sinclair would have recognized.

 

McDonald's has spoken a great deal recently about the fact that they're offering apple slices but to me that's not quite enough, it's not quite enough. And this entire industrial system that you saw all the photographs of McDonald's is at the top of this food pyramid and it has enormous power. I don't think any one company should have that much power. But if it has that much power it has an obligation to use it in a socially, truly socially responsible way.

 

Your eating habits are not going to change this industry. The federal government must regulate these business. Its a hundred years ago this year, not only that The Jungle was published but that the federal government for the first time declared it would protect consumers from economic concentrated corporate power from unethical corporate power a hundred years ago this year was the passage of The Safe Food and Drug Act, The Pure Food and Drug Act, The Meat Inspection Act and we need to return the government to fighting on behalf of consumers and not being controlled by a handful of corporations and its going to require a social movement to get this change. We had it a hundred years ago we need it again and that is of the greatest urgency. So I'm going to just conclude by suggesting something you really haven't heard much of in the last 25 years, something about collective action and collective responsibility and that is this: We are all connected, we really are, and compassion is a virtue in the same way that cheapness is, I would say it's a much more important virtue, and a much greater virtue. We need a countervailing force against this system worshiping science, worshiping technology, worshiping efficiency, whatever the impact. We have shown in the last 30 years a profound arrogance before nature in our desire to control nature that arrogance got us into these problems; it will not get us out. So I think we need to develop a much greater sense of humility before nature and I'm not advocating a return to horse-drawn plows. I'm advocating a humility before these latest technologies such as genetic engineering, such as cloning. The USDA this month has approved the sale of cloned animals for meat, that is madness, total madness. We are all connected whether we like it or not, animals, people, the land. And I'm going to quote from a botanist who was studying the dust bowl in the 1930's who came to this conclusion who said it far more eloquently than I can.

 

This is the botanist Paul Sears in the year 1935, "all renewable resources are linked into a common pattern of relationship. We can save any one of them only by measures that save all of them and we are part of the whole that must be saved." Thank you.

 

Jon Steinman: And that was Eric Schlosser, author of the book Fast Food Nation, which, first released in 2001 was most recently turned into a feature length film by Richard Linklater, and I highly recommend both the book and the film. Eric was recorded speaking in November 2006 at Princeton University. And you can learn more about Eric, this conference and listen to his complete lecture, by visiting the links provided on the Deconstructing Dinner website and selecting today's broadcast titled Personal versus Corporate Responsibility. And that website is cjly.net/deconstructingdinner.

 

soundbite

 

Jon Steinman: you're tuned in to Deconstructing Dinner, produced at Kootenay Co-op Radio in Nelson, British Columbia. I'm Jon Steinman. On the following day of this Food, Ethics and the Environment conference held at Princeton University, an unlikely spokesperson was invited to speak in front of a very skeptical audience, and that was Bob Langert, Vice-President of Corporate Social Responsibility of McDonald's Corporation. Bob's role with the company sees him addressing animal welfare issues, environmental issues, promoting active lifestyles, and analyzing the company's supply chain. His presentation consisted of outlining the role of his position with the company and how McDonald's has been responding to public criticism over their operations. But of greatest interest during this session where he spoke alongside author Michael Pollan, was the question and answer period following both presentations. Now one of the underlying themes to Bob's presentation was that McDonald's would like to change the way in which their food is raised and produced, but is unable to do so unless other companies come on board. Many in the audience took exception to such statements, and here's one comment from the audience addressing this concern.

 

Audience member: I do applaud you for coming in front of this audience because as you can tell most of the folks in here probably don't eat McDonald's. But with all do respect I think it's irresponsible as a representative of McDonald's to say that you do not have the power, you're more powerful than some governments. And this body of people along with other people all around this country are bonding together to try to change this. You have created the agriculture system that we live with and you can change it and I would really hope that the progressive people within your organization would see that the future is changing and that the American public wants a different diet.

 

Jon Steinman: And here's another comment made from a member of the audience on this same issue, and Bob Langert does respond using the example of battery cage egg production, a practice that is often referred to as the most inhumane farming mechanism in existence. You will also hear the voice of author Michael Pollan as he interjects with a question of his own.

 

Audience member: Just one concerning thought or question to Bob and it's confusing to me I always think of the customer having the leverage and a rather large customer having a lot of leverage. But you talk about your suppliers and not being able to. Let's talk about the antibiotic usage in beef and not being about to get them make changes. My thought is if you can't do it with your clout, your size and your volume who can?

 

Bob Langert: We would love to join a coalition of other like-minded companies to call for the same thing. When we worked with that Environmental Defense Fund on that particular project we were trying to recruit other retailers to join on in. We had Bon Appètit join us and they're a great company but they're not huge, we couldn't recruit others. We've been out there to conferences and trade association meetings asking to do more in this area. We've been asking for other retailers to join this effort, so I'm with you I agree.

 

Michael Pollan: I'm curious to know why you can't do it alone though is it a matter of losing competitive advantage?

 

Bob Langert: Well it's because you're changing the agricultural system. It's because we don't have specialized beef facilities or pork facilities. I wish we did. Poultry is dedicated we have dedicated facilities just for McDonald's so we can actually implement these changes. We don't have dedicated facilities so they can't just do it for a small slice of business.

 

Michael Pollan: But I mean if you, we saw those images of the battery cages of the hens, if you were to decide as a company that that was a priority and you were only going to use free roaming hens for your eggs you don't think the industry would follow?

 

Bob Langert: Well we do have dedicated facilities for laying eggs and so that's why we're able to do that. That's an interesting story in itself. When we introduced our laying hen policy back in 1991 we used to have a whole bunch of local suppliers for eggs and so again it's a conflict between local and so on. When we went back and said well we're limiting forced molting, which is the starving of birds, and we're increasing the cages by half their size and all that they didn't want to do it so we actually had to set up a couple dedicated facilities for McDonald's on laying hens. So, that's the conundrum, I think we share some of these values. I think we can do what we can control. I think you need to put our purchase in perspective that yes were a big purchaser and a big brand name but the reality of when you actually go in and buy things is a little bit different. We're part of a larger mix and we're working at influencing what we can. We try to have a premium paid for traceability of beef yet very few people want to do that. So even when we pay for it we're not always getting what we want.

 

Jon Steinman: Now following the first time I heard this recording featuring Bob Langert, Vice-President of Corporate Social Responsibility for McDonald's, I visited McDonald's Canadian website to see if any information on their egg suppliers and animal welfare issues were provided. And here's what I found, "McDonald's is the Canadian quick service restaurant leader in poultry animal welfare practices. All of our egg-laying hen suppliers have complied with our request to increase the size of each bird's cage to a minimum of 72 square inches per bird - exceeding the guidelines set out by the CFIA Recommended Code of Practice for Poultry." Now as mentioned by Eric Schlosser at the beginning of today's show, companies like McDonald's are on the run more and more because people are becoming aware of the farming practices they're supporting. As Eric suggested, the one thing company's like McDonald's don't have on their side, is the truth. And in this particular instance he is right, because the company's statement that their efforts exceed recommended codes of practice are misleading. I took a look at the actual codes of practice and they consist of five categories of recommended floor space for each bird. In the case of an adult hen weighing 1700g, the recommended floor space is 67 square inches, and for a bird of 1900g, 75 square inches. So this 72 inch minimum set by McDonald's is hardly an effort at all, and of course does nothing to address that these birds spend their entire lives in cages which is most importantly the concern raised when speaking of animal welfare in the egg-laying industry.

 

There was another audience question soliciting a response that provided yet another example of a company that doesn't quite have the truth on their side. Take a listen.

 

Audience member: Hi, I also just want to say thank you for engaging this conversation. But I was wondering, you said McDonald's is the ultimate consumer and just in terms of ethics I mean we talk a lot about excess consumption being unethical in a world of finite resources and I'm wondering how as McDonald's continues to grow you continue to use more water and land etc. all of our resources how you can reconcile corporate social responsibility with that?

 

Bob Langert: Well part of our growth strategy now conforms to your thinking and our company took a big turn around 3 or 4 years ago when we said we're not going to grow by becoming bigger, we're going to grow by becoming better and I think that's been a key corporate strategy of ours related to all the business parts of McDonald's. We used to, back in the 80's, fill 1,000-1,500 restaurants a year and that was the growth model and today it's not sustainable. I think we're going to grow because were a good choice as well. So we take a look at why we've been successful over the last 3 or 4 years and take a look at our menu it's very different and much broader. The Asian salad, I had that once a week, it is terrific. The fruit parfait, the apple dippers, the milk, the juices, more chicken, we sell almost more chicken then we do beef. So I mean its different today so I think we're going to grow by being better and providing better choices for consumers and others will not be growing, they'll be losing business.

 

Jon Steinman: Now the problem with this response by McDonald's Vice President of Corporate Social Responsibility is that it simply put, is not true, that is his comment claiming this, "We're not going to grow by becoming bigger any more."

 

So this was recorded in 2006, and I took a look at McDonald's 2006 annual report and one of the highlights of the report is this, "Growing to 31,000 we opened 744 McDonald's Restaurants in 2006."

 

Further to this, Chief Executive Officer of McDonald's Jim Skinner writes this in a letter to the company's shareholders dated March 2007, "Financially, McDonald's share price has increased three-fold since we implemented our Plan to Win, with its strategic imperative to be better, not just bigger. Going forward, by leveraging our size, brand strength and capacity to scale new ideas - through 31,000 of the best locations on the planet and the best owner/operators in the history of franchising we have a unique opportunity to continue to grow market share and ultimately take a larger slice out of an ever-increasing pie." Now of course this is rife with comments about their desire to continue getting bigger, but of even greater concern is their belief that the pie itself is increasing, that the planet does indeed have more resources to provide to this industrial food system that isn't working.

 

soundbite

 

This next question posed by the audience to Bob Langert, is in regards to their marketing practices to children. The company has long marketed their hamburgers, french fries, soft drinks and milkshakes to children all over the world. Ronald McDonald is indeed quite the model figure representing the company, but in the year 2000, the company used Teletubbies to help market their foods to children who are not even able to yet speak.

 

Audience member: I want to ask you if it's ethical and responsible to market junk food to children?

 

Bob Langert: I think our company has very responsible practices related to marketing to kids. If you take a look at what we advertise we advertise things that are in the proper portion size. Commercials show kids in activity so we can promote that. We have our own set of internal standards there's some standards that you heard of this morning that we signed on to earlier this week. That says yes we can do more and we should do more and ultimately it really comes down to the food, I take exception to your definition of the food. Take a look at the food, take a look at the calories, take a look at the fat, take a look at the other alternatives that kids eat as well just take a look at the big picture. But we need to do more on food. We're selling 3 times the 1% milk that we did 4 years ago because we introduced nice little jugs for them. Were selling apple juice were selling apple dippers as a replacement for fries. Were exploring alternative food menu items for kids its one tough code to crack. I've been in charge of this Global Advisory Council on Balanced Active Lifestyles, we work with 15 of the very best nutritional experts around the world and they're tough minded independent people and that's why I'm glad to be here this is just okay because we get very constructive solid strong feedback all the time. And we are looking at trying to create more options for kids as well, but getting things that they will actually buy and enjoy is a challenge.

 

Jon Steinman: And this is Deconstructing Dinner, where we are listening to segments of the question and answer period following a presentation by McDonald's Vice President of Corporate Social Responsibility Bob Langert. Bob spoke as part of a panel with Michael Pollan author of the book The Omnivore's Dilemma, and moderating the panel was Peter Singer, most well-known for his book Animal Liberation, often said to be the beginning of the animal liberation movement itself. In this next question, Peter Singer addresses another recent topic here on Deconstructing Dinner, and that is the condition in which the animals providing McDonald's bacon and sausages spend their lives. Early on in Bob Langert's presentation, he indicated that the company maintains an open door policy, but how many customers are really aware that female pigs spend their entire lives indoors. This question is followed by a segment of Bob's answer.

 

Peter Singer: I have a question for both of you actually but separate questions. I want to thank both of you for coming and reaching the conference. For Bob I'm sure you saw the results, and Paul Shapiro talked about it, that on November 7th, 62% of Arizonans voted against the veal crate and we saw earlier that majority of people in Florida did. I think it's safe to say that a majority of Americans including a majority of your customers I assume would not want that system if they could see it. Now your social responsibility report says open doors but I dare say that you haven't educated your customers to say that if you buy pig products from McDonald's they came from sows who were confined locked up all their lives basically in crates that they couldn't move around so I'm asking you since there are viable alternatives, economically viable alternatives to this whether if you really believe in open doors you'll either tell your customers where there pork products come from or take some steps toward moving away from that?

 

Bob Langert: On the gestation stalls for sows I totally agree with you Peter I think you know we don't view what Paul showed as sustainable or acceptable.

 

Jon Steinman: And so there you have it, McDonald's does not support the way in which their animals providing pork products are raised. But this next question introduces one barrier to companies like McDonald's being able to provide their customers with such important information on where their food is coming from, and how humane the practices really are.

 

Audience member: I actually have a question that would actually address both of you. For the McDonald's issue I was wondering why you speak about all of these things but you support the Centre for Consumer Freedom, which acts in complete opposition to all of these things and I think it's a sort of dream washing type of thing?

 

Bob Langert: I'm not aware we support them.

 

Jon Steinman: Now for those unfamiliar with the Centre for Consumer Freedom, this is a very interesting group to end today's broadcast on. To first recap today's broadcast; the title of the show is Personal versus Corporate Responsibility and has been raising the question, who should be responsible for the damaging industrial food system that has become the dominant food system serving Canadians and increasingly the world? Now companies like McDonald's obviously believe in Corporate Responsibility, here we've been listening to the Vice President of Corporate Social Responsibility. But the Centre for Consumer Freedom based in Washington, DC, does the complete opposite, and their slogan is this, "Promoting Personal Responsibility and Protecting Consumer Choice." Now CCF is in fact a front group for the food, alcohol and tobacco industries. It was first created in the mid 1990's to help Philip Morris fight for smokers rights in restaurants, and it was up until 2002 called, The Guest Choice Network. They continue to run media campaigns that oppose the efforts of scientists, doctors, health advocates, environmentalists, and groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and they refer to all of these as the Nanny Culture.

 

Now before I share more information about this group with you, I do want to bring McDonald's back into the picture here. CCF does receive funding from the food industry, and McDonald's does not provide funding to them that we know of, but McDonald's does support many of the companies and organizations that do. For one, The National Restaurant Association, which represents large chains like McDonald's has claimed that they do have regular communications with Consumer Freedom, and believes they have an important voice. Some of CCFs major financial supporters have been Coca Cola, Tyson Foods and Cargill, all of whom are major suppliers to McDonald's restaurants around the world. So this question posed by this audience member is indeed valid, because the Centre for Consumer Freedom undermines everything that Bob Langert says McDonald's is trying to do, yet the company is indirectly supporting these efforts.

 

And I think this is an important organization to focus on, and should perhaps become the feature of a future broadcast, because essentially the existence of an organization like this, who receives funding either directly or indirectly from virtually every sector of our food system, makes every socially and environmentally responsible statement or action by these companies fallacious, deceitful, and perhaps meaningless.

 

Now CCF does maintain a significant presence on the Internet. They manage websites such as their main site Consumerfreedom.com, they operate activistcash.com (which criticizes well-known activists from Greenpeace, The Sierra Club, The Humane Society of the United States), they operate cspiscam.com (solely dedicated to criticizing the Centre for Science in the Public Interest, animal-scam.com (which criticizes animal rights groups), they operate fishscam.com, obesitymyths.com, physiciansscam.com, trans-fatsfacts.com, mercuryfacts.com and petakillsanimals.com.

 

A recent statement made by a spokesperson for the organization summed up the Centre for Consumer Freedom's mandate, and this was made in response to criticisms over an ad campaign that they were conducting. He said this, that "the ads were meant to attract people to their website and draw attention to our enemies: just about every consumer and environmental group, chef, legislator or doctor who raises objections to things like pesticide use, genetic engineering of crops or antibiotic use in beef and poultry." Now this last comment caught my eye because during Bob Langert's presentation, he addresses the company's concerns over the widespread use of antibiotics in the livestock sector, yet they are purchasing their meat from companies that support the Centre for Consumer Freedom, an organization who is challenging these concerns. It's almost enough to sound as though this is some farcical comedy but this is indeed the truth.

 

So in this last portion of today's broadcast I'd like to go through some more information I extracted from this organization's website, so that you can see the kind of information our food dollars are supporting.

 

What first caught my eye on their main website consumerfreedom.com is a section featuring photographs of Dennis Rodman, Anna Nicole Smith and Pamela Anderson. And the page asks the question, "What is the collective I.Q. of PETA's Celebrity Activists" PETA is also known for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. And this webpage provides a number of possible answers to this question, one of which is this, "Not high enough to qualify for the death penalty in 23 states," another, "Trending toward mentally disadvantaged" and yet another option, "a single-celled amoeba." It almost sounds like a bunch of school-aged children are behind this organization but I can assure you this is not the case.

 

soundbite

 

Yet another startling finding on the Centre for Consumer Freedom's website was an article they posted on July 30th of this year 2007. The article is titled, "Taking Aspirin for Animals," and it's in reference to a recent gathering of animal rights groups that the CCF attended. And here's what a section of the article reads, "This weekend the Humane Society of the United States, The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), and assorted other radical animal rights groups hosted a "Taking Action for Animals" conference in Washington D.C. The Centre for Consumer Freedom was there to keep an eye on the proceedings, which gave us a royal headache. ("Rights" for farm animals? So much for our morning bacon.")

 

So CCF is worried about our morning bacon because groups are calling for animals to have rights, which they obviously think is ridiculous. Now let's track back again to Bob Langert, VP of Corporate Social Responsibility for McDonald's who's job is to address animal welfare issues, yet their meat suppliers are financially supporting a company who believe animal rights is a joke.

 

Now we're running out of time here, but I could go on describing this organization that our food dollars are supporting, but you really should just check it out for yourself at consumerfreedom.com. On one of their other websites, they profile groups like The Sierra Club - a long standing and respected environmental organization, and Centre for Consumer Freedom describes the organization as "an anti-growth, anti-technology group that puts its utopian environmentalist vision before the well being of humans." And so, our food system has yet to recognize that humans are very much a part of our environment, that environmentalism is not yet seen as a humanitarian set of ideals.

 

But to close out this startling information, I did come across a page of Frequently Asked Questions, somewhat designed to debunk any criticism of this organization. And the question that caught my eye was, "Do you have a bias?" And their response, "Yes! We believe that only you know what's best for you. When activists try to force you to live according to their vision of society, we don't take it lying down." So Consumer Freedom is against forcing people to live according to their vision of society, well let's look back at McDonald's who indirectly financially supports the group making this statement. As Eric Schlosser pointed out at the beginning of today's broadcast, McDonald's founder Ray Kroc was quoted as saying this "We have found out that we cannot trust some people who are non-conformists we will make conformists out of them in a hurry. The organization cannot trust the individual, the individual must trust the organization."

 

And I'll leave you with these last clips.

 

Audience member: I got to say Bob you kind of remind me of the guy in the movie Thank You for Smoking but I commend you it took a lot of gall to get on this stage in front of the most un-McDonald's audience on the East coast.

 

Eric Schlosser: The chicken McNugget was invented I think in 1983 so it's only been around for 20 years and somehow, somehow mankind fed itself for millennia without it, which makes me optimistic about the future.

 

ending theme

 

Jon Steinman: That was this week's edition of Deconstructing Dinner, produced and recorded at Nelson, British Columbia's Kootenay Co-op Radio. I've been your host Jon Steinman. I thank my technical assistant John Ryan.

 

The theme music for Deconstructing Dinner is courtesy of Nelson-area resident Adham Shaikh.

 

This radio program is provided free of charge to campus/community radio stations across the country, and relies on the financial support from you the listener. Support for the program can be donated through our website at cjly.net/deconstructingdinner or by dialing 250-352-9600.

 

Till next week.


HOME | DONATE | ABOUT | PAST EPISODES/TRANSCRIPTS | SPEAKING ENGAGEMENTS | LEARN | CONTACT

deconstructingdinner@cjly.net


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.