Score one for the pigs. The news that McDonald's will require its U.S. pork suppliers to phase out the use of gestational crates should add a lot more momentum to efforts to end the practice of confining sows while pregnant.
"It's a promising move," says Paul Shapiro, senior director of farm animal protection for the Humane Society of the United States.
The animal rights organization, a longtime critic of factory farming practices, collaborated with the McDonald's folks on the joint announcement, which requires the suppliers of McRib and other meat to submit their plans for phasing out the crates by May. "No other fast-food company has done what McDonald's has done here," Shapiro tells The Salt.
On U.S. farms, most sows are confined while pregnant in 2-foot-wide steel crates. The practice keeps the pigs from fighting and snatching others' food. But critics say that changes in animal handling and feeding can minimize those risks without having to pen the animals so tightly they can't walk or turn around.
"Imagine taking a 500-pound, social, intelligent animal and immobilizing them for years," Shapiro says. "The crates are lined up by the thousands, like parked cars."
The Humane Society and other animal welfare groups have been pressuring pork producers on the issue for over a decade. In 2007, Smithfield, the world's largest pork producer, said that it would phase out gestational crates by 2017. Now McDonald's is pushing for bigger changes, faster.
About 100 million pigs are raised in the United States for food each year, according to the Humane Society. And 1 percent of that pork is bought by McDonald's, according to the corporation.
Th National Pork Producers Council gave a thumbs up to crate announcement, calling it an opportunity for market-led reform. "Pork industry customers have expressed a desire to see changes in how pigs are raised. Farmers are responding and modifying their practices accordingly," the lobbying group said in a statement. "That process is effective, it is efficient and doesn't require an act of Congress."
Perhaps they've been following the experiences of their brethren in the poultry industry, who have been struggling to deal with a growing patchwork of state regulations demanding more spacious cages and nest boxes.
The chicken folks have also found a new ally in the Humane Society, as NPR's Dan Charles reported earlier this month. The two group are lobbying together for a single federal rule on cage and nest box sizes.
McDonald's clout helped jump-start that campaign, too. In 1999, when the McMuffin purveyor ordered egg suppliers to provide more space for laying hens, other fast food emporiums quickly followed suit.
Chipotle Mexican Grill has required its suppliers to use larger pens or outdoor paddocks since 2001. But it lacks the muscle in the marketplace of its former corporate parent. Chipotle's commercial that's a hymn to uncrating farm animals, was featured on Sunday's Grammy Awards, and has scored more than 5 million hits on YouTube.