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Last Updated: Tuesday, 15 July, 2003, 07:30 GMT 08:30 UK
Fast food faces up to changing tastes

By Stephen Evans
BBC North America Business Correspondent

The new "cool" snack?
The Wall Street Journal recently ran a rather snide article about vegetarians.

The drift of it was: "There's a lot of it about these days and isn't that odd? Young people today really do have some very strange habits".

Now, those weren't the exact words the august journal used but they do convey the tenor of the piece.

But the paper did quote some interesting figures: the number of American teenagers not eating meat doubled last year.

The proportion is still small, but it is growing and vegetarianism has become very "cool" indeed.

'Clams have feelings too'

Many young people go beyond eschewing meat (the opposite of chewing it) to eschew dairy products too.

Where once organic food was for wimps, now its place in the supermarket is prominent
As the WSJ reported incredulously of these vegans, "Out of respect for the bees, some won't even touch honey".

The harrumphing Journal blames that old favourite for this decline in the American way, the lyrics of pop songs: "A number of bands actively promote vegetarianism to their audiences. (Sample lyric: 'Clams have feelings too')."

In truth, the Journal may be on to something, despite its Old Dame scorn at "what-do-these-youngsters-get-up-to-these-days".

Humane treatment

There has been a change in attitudes. Fast-food companies, for example, are taking more notice of "animal rights".

Unlikely to enjoy a ripe dotage
Consumers seem to be more aware of food content. Where once organic food was for wimps, now its place in the supermarket is prominent.

McDonald's, Burger King, KFC and Wendy's are funding research into the humane treatment of animals, something far from the corporate mind a decade ago.

McDonald's is to insist that its suppliers use fewer hormones to promote fast growth. The company is pressing the egg industry to give chickens more space.

Sound argument

Now, none of this suddenly presents previously down-trodden animals with a bright vista of luxury.

One of the reasons McDonald's lost its commercial way was that it didn't change as customer taste changed
Tomorrow's Chicken McNuggets will still probably live slow lives before fast deaths. It will not be a life of leisure in easy chairs sipping chilled Chablis, followed by a ripe dotage.

But to take more account of conditions on the way to that death is still a significant change.

It's estimated that about 8 billion animals, mostly chickens, are raised and slaughtered for fast food in the United States each year.

At one time, all the pressure was to make that process cheaper; now, cost isn't the over-riding parameter.

The companies say that they've been converted to the good way by sound argument. They've changed because it's right to change.

Seeking trust

Maybe. But there's also no doubting other pressure.

One of the reasons McDonald's lost its commercial way was that it didn't change as customer taste changed.

People, Americans after Europeans, started mistrusting the industry in general. They wanted food they could trust - and growth-inducing hormones don't inspire trust.

The other pressure has come from legislators.

The fast-food companies are global so the toughest world standard tends to become the bar to jump.

And the European Union, in particular, is toughening the law on the treatment of animals.

Consumer power

The animal rights activists say that it's they who have wrought the change.

Earlier in the year, the head of one of the big companies had a red, blood-like liquid thrown over him.

But in America, animal rights activists aren't that prominent.

Rather than them, the catalyst of change for billions of unhappy animals may be that most powerful of pressure groups - the consumer.


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