You might have seen the mural in La Trobe Street – a stretch of wall near Swanston Street painted with sad grey battery hens wearing fast food boxes over their heads: a sly shot at the burger chains, the submarine sandwich sellers and the peri peri chicken grillers. A hashtag in one corner, #fixfastfood, clues you in that this must be some activist statement about factory farming – a quick throw-up by a guerilla animal rights group.
Except, of course, it isn’t: the mural was commissioned by Guzman y Gomez, a Mexican fast-food franchise with 74 restaurants, who have just announced they’ll be switching to free-range chicken in their burritos and enchiladas. On Friday, September 16, they staged a “rally” in Sydney to make a stand for free-range chicken. They’re not alone, in August, Hungry Jack’s said it had transitioned to 100 per cent cage-free eggs on its menu, 16 months earlier than initially planned.
You could dismiss the mural and the rally as marketing stunts, but the fast-food chain deserves a thumbs-up for moving towards ethical food and challenging other chains to do the same. As Guzman y Gomez’s Steven Marks says, “We don’t want to put these guys out of business. We want to inspire them to come along. We want to clean up fast food.” Free-range pork and beef will be on the menu soon, too.
The free-range chicken comes from supplier Lilydale, whose farmers are certified by Free Range Eggs and Poultry Australia. That organisation’s standards say birds should be stocked at no more than 28 kilos per square metre – about 20 chickens. Birds must have access to outdoor areas during the day, where they should find shade, shelter and palatable vegetation. Farmers can’t debeak chickens or trim their toes. A free-range farm is no jungle fowl paradise, but it isn’t a battery operation either.
The RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme says chicken must come from farms that, among other things, provide straw bales that birds can peck, a longer dark period so they can rest properly, and enough room to move freely within a shed. Chickens need ready access to a range area during the day that provides shade, shelter and protection from predators. Lilydale chicken is not on the RSPCA’s list.
People who live in inner Melbourne and Sydney can eat more ethically by shopping at farmers markets and organic butchers. Country folk can raise their own meat as ethically as they like. But the need to feed suburban Australia means that the really big changes in how we raise animals for food will happen when big businesses change the way they do it. Guzman y Gomez is pushing the debate in the right direction.
We chicken eaters can do more, too. Using free-range chicken will increase Guzman y Gomez’s costs by 20 per cent: as an obese nationwe could eat 20 per cent less chicken and not go hungry if that means more meat is raised free range. As a relatively wealthy society we can pay more. We can support fast-food chains that use ethical meat, and boycott those that don’t.
Most chickens only live because we want to eat them: I’d prefer to make their lives as cruelty-free as we can. I’m not calling for militant veganism or animal rights activism, but for awareness about our food choices. If a fast-food chain wants to get on board with that, I say good on ’em.
This article originally was posted to Sydney Morning Herald, and written by Matt Holden