The Field Report: Ranking Chain Restaurants on Animal Welfare | Civil Eats

The Field Report: Ranking Chain Restaurants on Animal Welfare

Plus: WOTUS is back, surveying young farmers, threats to Indigenous foodways, and more.

SAN RAFAEL, CA - OCTOBER 01: Nutritional information is printed on the wrapper of a McDonald's Egg McMuffin October 1, 2008 in San Rafael, California. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation Tuesday that makes California the first state in the U.S. to require chain restaurants to reveal calorie information on standard menu items. The law goes into effect in July 2009. (Photo Illustration by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Welcome to The Field Report, our new weekly round-up of easy-to-digest stories. Each week, we’ll keep you updated on the most important food system news out of Washington, D.C. and around the country, with added perspective, analysis, and context. Email lisa@civileats.com with tips.

Fast food companies have made big promises on animal welfare in recent years. But this week, animal welfare organizations released two different reports that call out those companies and other restaurant chains for falling short on their promises.

First, the Open Wing Alliance ranked the largest global food chains on their cage-free egg commitments. It gave high marks to YUM! Brands, which owns KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut, and Restaurant Brands International, the company behind Burger King and Popeyes. On the flipside, it singled out McDonald’s—which was once seen as a leader in phasing out eggs from caged hens—for failing to make progress on its commitment. Subway, Domino’s, and Darden Restaurants, the group that includes Olive Garden and LongHorn Steakhouse, didn’t fare well either.

For years, activist groups have focused on eliminating the small battery cages used in egg production because they see it as one of the straightest paths toward improving the lives of billions of animals. However, other groups have opposed cage-free initiatives because they feel they set too low of a bar. Meanwhile industry groups have argued that chickens are safer when separated and that eliminating cages would hurt consumers by increasing prices. Despite the lack of consensus, the Alliance found that 2,000 food companies have now made cage-free commitments, and many states have passed laws banning the use of cages in egg production.

The second report, released on Monday, graded popular salad chains on whether they had committed to “comprehensive welfare policies,” including on cage-free eggs but also on eliminating gestation crates in their pork supply chains and higher standards for chickens raised for meat. “Customers going to salad chains are expecting high standards for animal welfare, but instead are purchasing products that are so cruel that they are illegal in many U.S. states,” said Sharon Núñez, president of Animal Equality, the organization behind the report.

Animal Equality identified five chains, including Chop Stop, MAD Greens, and Tender Greens, as lacking clear animal welfare commitments. It named Chopt, Honeygrow, and Just Salad as “standout companies” for leading on the issue.

In both reports, details on exactly how the rankings were determined are unclear. What the reports do show, however, is that animal welfare groups see exerting pressure on consumer-facing food companies as an effective strategy. And yet, while that strategy has proven successful at getting many companies to promise to do better, their promises don’t always result in real change. Then again, changing laws is a hard slog, too: Also this week, after multiple meat industry-led lawsuits, a judge in California delayed the enforcement of California’s Prop 12 animal welfare law. The pause is based on the fact that the state’s Department of Agriculture hasn’t yet finalized regulations related to the law, which voters approved back in November 2018.

Read More:
Fast Food and Grocery Giants Promise to Sell “Better” Chicken; Is It Enough?
What You Need to Know About the Corporate Shift to Cage-Free Eggs
Is the Pork Industry Using Food Justice to Stall California’s Animal Welfare Law?

WOTUS Is Back in Washington. The obscure-sounding “Waters of the U.S.,” or “WOTUS” rule, has been caught up in a ping-pong-style saga for years now, with agriculture groups like the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association playing significant roles in the drama. As of this week, the game is back on. The rule determines which bodies of water can be regulated under the Clean Water Act, and environmental groups argue a broad interpretation is necessary to minimize pollution from all sources—including agriculture—that makes its way from small bodies of water into larger, important ones. President Obama expanded the definition of WOTUS in 2015. But farm groups have long lobbied (and sued) for an interpretation that exempts water on their lands. They opposed the rule even when it did include agricultural exemptions and then supported President Trump’s rewrite of the rule, which significantly narrowed which bodies of water were included. Now, the Biden administration is again attempting to expand which waters would be protected, and farm groups are fighting to get explicit exemptions for agriculture into the new rule. At the same time, the Supreme Court announced it will take up a case related to WOTUS. Looks like we’ll soon be adding yet another update to our coverage of the saga.

Read More:
Waters of the U.S. Rollback Signals Livestock Industry’s Bullish Approach Under Trump
How Four Years of Trump Shaped Food and Farming

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Calling All Young Farmers. The National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC) announced the launch of its 2022 National Young Farmer Survey, the results of which will be used to shape the organization’s advocacy priorities around “equity, farmland justice, and climate action” for the 2023 Farm Bill. “The National Young Farmer Survey is the only survey of its scale to focus not only on the current state of affairs in our agricultural system but, more importantly, on the next generation and the future of our sector,” said Sophie Ackoff, co-executive director of NYFC. Past surveys from 2011 and 2017 led to advocacy efforts that helped score wins for young farmers in the 2014 and 2018 Farm Bills, including a microloan program, increased funding for beginning farmer training and outreach to socially disadvantaged farmers, and beginning farmer and rancher coordinators in every state. This year, NYFC hopes to include 10,000 young farmers in the survey. The 2022 survey also includes expanded questions on demographics, crop variety, and business and student loan debt young farmers are accruing.

Read More:
Op-ed: Young Farmers Are Locked Out of the System; The Asset Economy Is to Blame
Op-ed: Cancelling Student Debt Would Give Young BIPOC Farmers a Chance
Despite Many Challenges, the U.S. Has More Young Farmers Than It Did 5 Years Ago

Low-Carbon Beef Labels? The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will allow companies to label their beef “low carbon” based on a private certification scheme called, simply, Low Carbon Beef. According to CBS News, the certification criteria includes “feeds, fuels, and fertilizers” and will evolve to include other factors such as soil carbon sequestration and feed additives that reduce methane emissions from cow burps. But as Wired outlines, the label is controversial for many reasons. First, beef will be eligible for the low-carbon designation if its production results in 10 percent lower emissions compared to “typical beef,” but experts say the number that determines what is typical is set so high, almost all U.S. beef would currently qualify. The label might also suggest carbon is the only environmental impact that matters. Most importantly, while one mode of production may be less emissions-intensive than another, beef is still, on the whole, the most resource-intensive food at the grocery store, and labeling it “low-carbon” could suggest otherwise to shoppers. And of course, emissions are just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to beef’s climate impacts and resilience: The Los Angeles Times also ran a story this week on a rancher who—in the face of extended droughts—is experimenting with cattle that require less water.

Read More:
Can an Industrial-Scale Meat Company Be Carbon Neutral?
New Research Confirms What We Eat Is Central to the Climate Crisis

Trading Salmon for Gold. A proposed gold mine in Alaska is pitting Alaska Native corporations against local tribes, according to a report in Indian Country Today. The proposed Donlin Gold mine would be the largest in the world and tribes are concerned about its impacts on a nearby river, which provides habitat for salmon that is crucial to the food security of local tribal communities. Based on an environmental impact statement, they are also worried about how it could affect other wildlife and local food sources such as caribou, seal, and berries.

Read More:
For Native Alaskans, Salmon Declines Pose Existential Crisis
A Return to Native Agriculture
Indigenous Food Sovereignty Movements Are Taking Back Ancestral Land

Today’s food system is complex.

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“I wish customers realized how much power they have over us.” That’s one gut-wrenching quote from an Instacart shopper’s story of what the job really entails, detailed in a story published by Mother Jones last week. While it’s just one worker’s account, her description of exploitative practices such as “tip baiting,” where customers post a tip to attract a shopper and then reduce it after the job is done, and how her wages have been steadily dropping without notice (while the company CEO’s net worth has jumped to $3.5 billion) add vivid detail to a picture of exploitation in the gig economy that has slowly been coming into focus over the past few years.

Read More:
Technology Could Make or Break the Food Workforce of the Future
Op-ed: California Sets a Dangerous Precedent for Food Delivery Workers

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior staff reporter. Since 2015, she has reported on agriculture and the food system with an eye toward sustainability, equality, and health, and her stories have appeared in publications including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Mother Jones. In the past, she covered health and wellness and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism. Read more >

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