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Starbucks has caught a lot of flak locally in recent months — neighbors railed against it when it made its way into Williamsburg a couple months back, and some Crown Heights business owners would rather not have to compete with the outlet in that neighborhood. But one of the world’s largest coffee sellers (and one of the leading indicators of gentrification) recently announced some big news that may help endear it to some of its skeptical customers: The chain is working to dramatically improve its animal welfare standards, and it just announced a new policy that outlines how it’ll do that.
Under its new policy, Starbucks plans to phase out gestation crates, egg-laying hen cages, fast-growing chickens, growth hormones, and irresponsible use of antibiotics; the new policy also addresses dehorning, tail docking, and castration, with and without anesthesia. “Specifically, our priority is to ensure we offer food made with ingredients such as cage-free eggs, gestation crate–free pork, and poultry processed through more humane systems such as CAK [Controlled Atmosphere Killing],” reads the statement.
But what do these changes really mean?
While it has yet to implement a timeline, the plan will affect all animals within the Starbucks supply chain. Some of the changes will impact the animals used for beverages (dairy cows), but the majority will be focused on the creatures used for its food products. “It is the most extensive policy reform of any restaurant chain I’ve seen,” says Josh Balk, the Humane Society director of policy, who helped Starbucks decide upon a plan. “These are the key issues of animal welfare; Starbucks is addressing them and doing so in a realistic way.”
According to Sanja Gould, a public relations representative for Starbucks, the company chose to make the changes as a natural progression from its existing standards. Since 2008, it has been slowly bringing in more humane products, like cage-free eggs, so this was the next step in terms of creating a better and more sustainable supply chain. “The update to our animal welfare statement happened in the regular course of reviewing our policies with key stakeholders including our partners (employees) and customers, key non-governmental organizations, such as the Humane Society, and through industry engagement,” she says.
The changes are most dramatic for chickens. Although the company had already begun using cage-free eggs in some of its sandwiches and in its protein box, with the new procedures, there will be a ban on cages for egg-laying hens. Battery caged hens live out their lives packed into stacked crates in a space the size of an iPad. Their beaks are seared to prevent pecking (in a natural environment, chickens use their beaks to explore and pick bugs), they can’t scratch their feet (another exploratory trait), they can’t nest (hens have a stronger drive to nest than eat), they can’t perch (which is how they normally sleep and escape more aggressive birds), they can’t stretch their wings (they flap to cleanse themselves and remove pests), and they sit around in their own defecation for years on end. “A cage is like if we were in an elevator packed with people, never able to get out,” says Balk.
The new standards still won’t require chickens to be pecking around bucolic pastures, but their lives will be vastly improved. The new regime does allow for parts of their beaks to be cut off and for the birds to live in flocks of thousands, so it could still go further in terms of humane treatment. Even so, these hens will be required to be able to engage in some of the aforementioned activities, such as perching and scratching, and they will have to have room to move around and spread their wings. Cage-free is certainly not the same as pasture-raised, but it is better than the cheaper alternative.
Starbucks has joined a growing list of corporations, including Nestlé and Unilever, with such rules. “You don’t find big egg producers defending cages anymore,” says Balk.
Starbucks goes further, though. It is one of the few companies that will soon prohibit fast-growing poultry from its supply chain. Due to genetic manipulation, chickens grow to full size in just over 40 days. Once upon a time, it took approximately 81 days to reach slaughter weight. Because of their massive breasts, the genetically modified birds have legs that can’t hold them up (they’re like the poultry equivalent of a Barbie), problematic lungs, and constant pain, and many experience heart attacks as well as other deformities. “It’s sickening,” says Balk. “These animals become Franken-animals, packed wing to wing, and most can’t walk.”
The company has also addressed slaughter in the new rules, though there’s still much to be defined within that policy. Pigs and cows are protected by the Humane Methods of Slaughtering Act, which ensures that the beasts must be rendered unconscious before they are killed, but chickens and poultry are excluded. At commercial plants, chickens are shackled and thrown in a water bath that renders them immobile. Their necks are then sliced before they’re dunked in a feather removal tank. Because of the fast pace and their numerous deformities (yet another reason Franken-chickens aren’t a good thing), many are scalded to death in the boiling water. Starbucks is exploring switching to Controlled Atmosphere Killing (CAK), which uses a gas to knock the birds out before they’re sent through the system, but the chain has not specifically outlined this as a requirement of its new policy.
The new rules deal with mammals, too, specifically, dehorning, tail-docking, and castration. Currently, throughout the industry, hogs and bovines undergo dehorning, tail-docking, and castration without anesthesia. Tail-docking is especially contentious; it’s frequently performed on dairy cows because removing the tail was believed to be cleaner than leaving it in place. That idea has been completely disproved — removing the tail not only causes pain at the time, but the practice is like removing the cow’s hands, rendering it unable swat away flies.
Dehorning is done to protect the animals from each other. It does have some merit; however, there are strains of cow that don’t have horns. So producers could opt for other breeds or just anesthetize them at the time of the operation.
Castration, on the other hand, isn’t avoidable. Farmers need to be able to control which females are impregnated by which males, and testosterone imparts a gamey flavor to meat, which most customers dislike. “We support neutering,” says Balk. “But if you brought a dog to the vet and he or she did not use painkillers, the vet would be prosecuted for animal cruelty.”
Starbucks has also vowed to eliminate the use of gestation crates for pigs from its supply chain as part of its new welfare standard. “Pigs can play video games better than chimpanzees,” says Balk. “These mother pigs are, in essence, living in coffins.” Commodity sows are often held for the duration of their pregnancies in tiny boxes that are about two feet wide and just a few inches longer than the length of their bodies. For nearly four months, they can’t turn around and can only take a couple steps forward or back. Highly social and extremely intelligent — pigs are smarter than most dogs — they basically go insane in these conditions. Many begin biting the steel bars that are used to confine them.
Currently, nine states have outlawed the use of gestation crates; however, they are still legal in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. The rule change brings Starbucks in line with several other companies, including McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s.
The last major reform Starbucks is planning on implementing is limiting the use of antibiotics in animals and cutting out artificial growth hormones. Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) causes a number of issues in dairy cows, such as mastitis, an infection of the udders that oftentimes results in pus passing through the milk. The hormone has been banned in numerous other countries.
To treat the mastitis (and numerous other health issues attributed to commercial farming), cows (and other highly stressed, unhealthy animals) are given antibiotics. The antibiotics have been shown to cause all sorts of environmental and human health issues in the form of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
While Starbucks could stand to further define what some of its new policy really means — will the company require CAK? which route is it going to pursue in terms of dehorning and tail-docking? how does it delineate responsible use of antibiotics? — the assertion that all of these issues will be addressed is a big deal for the food industry. Due to consumer complaints, gestation crates are already on the way out. Same goes for cage eggs. But Starbucks will be a pioneer if it takes on the issues of fast-growing chickens and dehorning, tail-docking, and humane castration.
For Balk, his work with the company feels like a huge step in the right direction. “The vast majority of suffering isn’t because of bad people,” he says. “It’s bad practices. It’s the system. We’re all trying to find a way to fix a broken system for animals in a way that promotes a sustainable business model.”
Again, no timeline for the pursuit has been released, and much of the declaration is vague, but the ball is rolling. “This will be an ongoing process; we’re working with the industry to create reasonable time frames to address each area of focus,” says Gould. “Certainly, the progress we’ve made with cage-free eggs since 2008 is a great example as we’ve increased purchases year over year, and are committed to continue to do so.”