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They’re hatin’ it: PETA urges McDonald’s to push for change in poultry industry

What’s the best way to kill a chicken? Or, in the case of McDonald’s, the best way to kill an estimated millions of chickens each year? That’s the question being posed by the Norfolk, Va.-based animal rights group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

Eight years ago, PETA suspended its McCruelty campaign against Oak Brook, Ill.-based McDonald’s Corp. when the company agreed to adopt certain animal welfare measures. Since that time, PETA has been working with McDonald’s behind the scenes, urging the fast food chain to demand a more humane method for slaughtering the chickens that end up in its sandwiches, salads and nuggets. Now, PETA is relaunching its McCruelty campaign, saying the restaurant isn't doing enough.

Why McDonald’s? Because more chickens are purchased by the company under the golden arches than by any other company in the U.S. “If they required their suppliers to switch to this method, McDonald’s could make this change happen [on a national scale],” said Matt Prescott, PETA’s head of corporate affairs.

Currently, the most common slaughter method in the U.S. uses the “electrical immobilization” system, which has slaughterhouse workers hanging live birds upside down on an assembly line where the birds are then given an electric shock to knock them out. Once unconscious, the birds’ throats are cut. The preferred method, according to PETA, is called “controlled atmosphere killing.” In the CAK method, which has been widely used in Europe for more than a decade, the birds are not removed while alive from holding bins, but are instead gassed inside their holding bins and hung on the assembly line once dead.

The advantage of CAK is that it lessens the risks associated with handling, including broken wings and higher stress levels in the birds just before slaughter. Prescott said that, in addition to being more humane, the CAK method “has vast economic benefits” because it lowers labor costs, improves working conditions and reduces the number of fallen birds. Prescott said most large-scale poultry operations could recoup the cost of switching to CAK within two years.

However, there are questions about whether the CAK method is actually better for birds. In its animal care standards, Humane Farm Animal Care, a nonprofit animal rights organization based in Herndon, Va., says, while HFAC believes that the use of gas under controlled conditions as a means of killing birds can provide many welfare benefits, there are “still a number of unresolved humane issues surrounding the proper gas mixture to be used and when unconsciousness occurs.” The use of carbon dioxide has come under fire by some critics, because it can result in strong negative reactions such as gasping for air and burning sensations.

“We don’t want to change from one method that is bad to another method that is worse,” said HFAC executive director Adele Douglass.

Prescott said that the debate comes down to what gas mixture to use. PETA supports the use of argon and nitrogen; and he said that research shows carbon dioxide systems are acceptable when the CO2 level is kept under 30 percent.

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