Ethical eating is as surprising as it is complex. Bob Langert, who directs corporate responsibility efforts at McDonald’s, is speaking at the Princeton conference on Food, Ethics, and the Environment, and says that he is “excited about going to the conference.”

Yes, he is with that McDonald’s, the one vilified in Eric Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation,” Morgan Spurlock’s “Supersize Me,” Michael Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma,” and well, just about every popular book and article on the evils of obesity, marketing nutritionally suspect food to children, the demise of the healthy family dinner, the exploitation of labor and the environment, and factory farming.

Does he not feel as if he is about to enter a lion’s den as he prepares to sit alongside prominent animal activists, famed nutritional gurus, and opponents of low-wage labor? Not at all.

“I’ve known Peter Singer for years,” he says of the conference’s organizer. “He’s a wonderful man — very intelligent, very astute.” Of the event’s food, ethics, and the environment theme, Langert, who has been with McDonald’s since 1983, says, “I have tried to advance these things for years. It’s a journey I’ve been on for 15 years.”

Many people know that McDonald’s, which is roundly attacked for its labor practices in Schlosser’s book, most often staffs its restaurants with part-timers — teenagers, and increasingly, immigrants, who, Schlosser claims, receive low wages and no benefits. Fewer people know that McDonald’s has been a major mobility vehicle for minority businesspeople. An article in the Atlantic City Press within the week, in fact, talked about the grand re-opening of the rebuilt McDonald’s at the foot of the Atlantic City Expressway, and mentioned in passing that it is “the most successful black-owned business in the city.”

More than 40.7 percent of all of the chain’s owner/operators are women and minorities, and the company states on its website that “we believe the combined sales of the company’s African-American licensees constitutes the largest African-American enterprise in the country.”

Fewer people still know about McDonald’s environmental initiatives. I thought about that recently as I wrangled with a vegetarian sandwich from the Whole Earth Center. It was wrapped in layer upon layer of thick plastic and stickers, and was more difficult to undo than the most stubborn DVD wrapper. By way of contrast, McDonald’s, in response to complaints from environmentalists, got rid of its styrofoam boxes ages ago, and now uses recycled paper — and as little of it as possible — in 31.5 percent of its packaging.

On another environmental issue, McDonald’s won praise this past July from, of all places, Greenpeace, which wrote, “in an historic deal that has impacts far beyond the golden arches and into the global agricultural market, McDonald’s is now the leading company to halt deforestation for the expansion of soya farming in the Amazon.” McDonald’s agreed to stop its role in slashing the forests for soya, which is fed to the pigs and chickens that end up in its sandwiches and breakfast entrees, after Greenpeace pointed an accusing finger at the company in April, which brought forth a torrent of negative E-mails. Yes, the chain caved to pressure, but it did so pretty quickly.

But what would surprise people the most about McDonald’s?

“Our work in animal welfare,” says Langert. This is how he came to know Singer. “We go back to a good friend of his, Henry Spira,” says Langert. Spira is a New York City-based animal activist. “Henry keep coming to McDonald’s looking for us to do more (to advance animal welfare). He told my boss ‘you’ve got to meet with Temple Grandin.’”

Grandin is an expert in animal handling and in humane slaughterhouse procedures. The meeting was arranged, and the results, in terms of slaughterhouse conditions were dramatic. Pollan writes that Grandin told him “‘there is the pre-McDonald’s era and the post-McDonald’s era — it’s day and night.’” Among the humane steps that Grandin suggests, and that have been implemented by McDonald’s meat suppliers, are high sides on the chute through which the animals take their final walk. This keeps the cows from seeing anything but the butt of the cow in front of them, and leads them to believe that they are on just another trip.

“While he’s straddling the bar, the ramp begins to decline at a 20-degree angle, and before he knows it, his feet are off the ground, and he’s being carried along on a conveyor belt,” Pollan writes of Grandin’s description of the system she has designed. “We put in a false floor so he can’t look down and see he’s off the ground. That would panic him.” Pollan asked Grandin if she thought the animals knew they were going to be slaughtered. No, she told him, explaining that “if they knew they were going to die you’d see much more agitated behavior.”

This system isn’t perfect. All McDonald’s audits are announced, so slaughterhouse personnel can be on their best behavior, and on occasion the stunning that kills the cows at the top of the chute fails, with predictably horrific consequences. But Pollan grudgingly admits that Grandin’s system is probably more humane than the processes that preceded it. And, importantly, when McDonald’s takes a step like this, other large chains follow like so many toppling dominoes.

Okay, maybe the animal who ends up in a McDonald’s Quarter Pounder is dying more peacefully than the one that gave its life for the burger at the mom and pop restaurant across the street. Maybe the chickens that McDonald’s has been instrumental in giving a little bit more space to move around in are better off too. But can eating at McDonald’s be healthy?

Langert, a trim, fit-looking man, says that he eats at McDonald’s a lot — far more than most people do. “I had an Asian salad today,” he says, “and I had a premium chicken sandwich yesterday.”

The average McDonald’s customer, Langert says, eats at the chain only three times a month, which, he points out, “leaves 87 other meal decisions.” The chain has upped its salad offerings, sells broiled as well as fried chicken, and has yogurt parfaits on its dessert menu.

Ahead of the pack again, McDonald’s has begun to put substantial nutritional information right on its wrappers, and will complete the process in the United States by the end of this year. Langert says that information on the calories, sodium, protein, and fat of many items are clearly marked. “We’re leading the industry,” he says. “We’re transparent.”

In another first, Langert has begun a blog, which can be found at, or just by typing “McDonald’s blog,” into a search engine. While some argue that blogging is a bad idea for a controversial company, Langert disagrees, saying “there’s lots of talk about McDonald’s. Let us be part of that.”

There will be lots of McDonald’s talk at the Princeton food conference, for sure, and Langert is ready for it. While “Mc” has become shorthand for dumbing down and cookie-cutter thinking, as in “McJobs” or “McMansions,” Langert is a smart man, and like nearly all of the panelists with whom he will sit, he is aware of the complexity of the issues. In pointing out that “nothing is as simple as it looks,” he may have come up with a catch phrase for the conference.

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