On Monday, McDonald’s announced that it will seek to have its pork suppliers phase out the use of gestational crates by May. Animal rights advocates have long opposed the use of “sow stalls,” which are barely over 2 feet by 7 feet in size. 60 to 70 percent of the more than 5 million breeding sows in the US are kept in such very close quarters; the crates can cause a number of health problems including urinary tract infections, weakened bone structures, overgrown hooves and mental health issues.
The New York Times’ Mark Bittman offers praise to McDonalds for “doing the right thing.” His description of gestational crates makes it all too clear why such an inhumane and unethical practice must end:
a gestation crate is an individual metal stall so small that the sow cannot turn around; most sows spend not only their pregnancies in crates, but most of their lives. For humans, this would qualify as “cruel and unusual punishment,” and even if you believe that pigs are somehow “inferior,” it’s hard to rationalize gestation crates once you see what they look like.
Needless to say, the pork industry is less than pleased.
McDonalds — the fourth-largest employer in the world – only buys one percent of the pork supply but the fast food giant’s decision to buy crate-free pork will have significant repercussions in how pigs are raised. In 1999, after McDonalds announced it would gives its caged hens 72 inches of space instead of 48, other fast-food chains were quick to do the same. Dr. Jodi Sterle, an expert on swine reproductive management at Iowa State University, is quoted by the New York Times as noting that there is “no easy alternative to sow stalls .. because feeding pigs is complicated by their hierarchical nature.” She points out that, when pigs are raised in groups, there is competition “for food, water and space, and especially for food”; with McDonalds’ decision to phase out crate-raised pork, the industry will have all the more reason to find ethical ways to raise the animals.
In Search of Sustainable Agricultural Practices For Fast Food Suppliers
Burger King was the first major fast-food company to reduce the amount of pork produced in gestational crates back in 2007, around the same time that it began to use cage-free eggs. The world’s largest produced of pork, Smithfield Foods, said that it would end the use of the creates by 2017, only to postpone such a change during the recession. It has now again said that it will cease to use gestational crates by 2017, following an undercover investigation. Cargill Foods says that it is 50 percent crate-free and Hormel Foods has recently said it will end the use of the crates in 2017, too.
Several states including California and Florida already have laws banning the use of crates in the meat and dairy industries. The Humane Society had recently increased its pressure on McDonalds.
While praising McDonalds, Bittman says, and rightly so, that we should in no way let the mega-company off the hook. Many other issues remain to be addressed such as the fast food chain’s actual food offerings, its relationship to the labor force and the marketing of its menu items to children via Happy Meals and splashy advertising.
Last summer, Krispy Kreme announced that it was switching to use cage-free eggs. We can keep up the pressure on big companies to practice sustainable agriculture and treat animals humanely and ethically. We are what we eat: Do we really want to eat a meal that was raised in a crate?
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