McDonald's Bows To Pressure On Treatment Of Sows

In another instance of activists stepping up pressure on a keystone marketer rather than legislators to effect change, the Human Society has won a major battle in its 11-year effort to improve conditions for pregnant pigs. McDonald’s announced yesterday that it would end the practice of confining sows to gestational crates that are barely bigger than they are.

“McDonald's believes gestation stalls are not a sustainable production system for the future,” says Dan Gorsky, SVP of McDonald’s North America Supply Chain Management, in a press release carrying the Humane Society’s logo as well as its own. “There are alternatives that we think are better for the welfare of sows.”

The pens are about two feet wide, leaving sows only enough room to stand up and sit down, Bill Tomson and Julie Jargon write in the Wall Street Journal.

“The announcement is the latest in a series of measures McDonald's and other restaurant chains have taken to improve their public image at a time when they are under pressure not only from interest groups but from some consumers to be more environmentally friendly and healthful,” they write.



The company is decidedly playing catch-up. The release cites Smithfield Foods and Cargill as having made significant progress in the area -- and other sources cite Chipotle’s long-term efforts and Burger King’s more recent ones -- but the news was considered seminal. While the company buys just 1% of the pork produced in the U.S. for its McRibs, bacon and sausages, the New York Times Stephanie Strom points out that its influence over the industry is much greater.

“I would go so far as to say that while we’ve been able to pass laws against gestation crates that are very important, this announcement by McDonald’s today does more to put the writing on the wall for the pork industry than anything that’s happened previously,” Paul Shapiro, senior director for farm animal protection at the Humane Society, tells Strom.

Florida, California and Arizona have banned gestation crates, Dan Pillar reports in the Des Moines Register. He also points out that the announcement was backed by livestock expert Temple Grandin, Ph.D.

“OMG: McDonald’s Does the Right Thing,” reads the headline atop New York Times’ “Opinionator” blogger and foodie Mark Bittman’s piece this morning. “The effect on the industry will be huge, because in the world of big-time meat supply, there are two kinds of producers: those who sell to McDonald’s and those wish they could,” he writes.

But while Bittman believes that “there’s no real down side” to the announcement, he says that “it should not let McDonald’s off the hook for more than a moment.” Among other things, it should use organic milk for its coffee, cage-free eggs for McMuffins and pay its workers a dollar more than minimum wage, he believes.

Grist List editor Jess Zimmerman was less impressed. “McDonald’s becomes one iota less horrible to pigs,” reads the headline above his short item, which also points out that the timetable for the phasing out of the crates is vague.

Others -- on both side of the issue -- were skeptical about yesterday’s announcement, too, of course.

“McDonald’s isn’t going to say this, but we’re throwing away a lot of good things about gestation stalls,” Steve Meyer, president of livestock and grain marketing consulting firm Paragon tells Bloomberg’s Leslie Patton, adding that the enclosures keep the sows from fighting with each other.

Dr. Jodi Sterle, an expert on swine reproductive management at Iowa State University, tells the Times’ Strom that finding alternatives to sow stalls is difficult “because feeding pigs is complicated by their hierarchical nature.” Strom then outlines some approaches that are being taken.

Neither People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals nor the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine had issued a release about the news on their websites as of early this morning.

The National Pork Producers Council continues to support the use of gestation stalls, but said it is willing to assist in the transition for McDonald's suppliers. Tellingly, though, its release states: “Perhaps most importantly, today’s announcement reflects the best process for meeting evolving consumer demands -- through the market, not through government mandates.”

Walmart’s “Great For You” nutritional label, backed by First Lady Michelle Obama, is seen as another effort to forestall government mandates, as is its program to gradually reduce sodium and sugar in the products it sells.

Many feel that the trickle-down effect of the retailer on both suppliers and consumers can have a greater impact on society than imposing new governmental regulations and standards would. But it is not without controversy as Marketing Daily’s Sarah Mahoney reported last week. “Public-health advocates worry that the disparate labeling efforts are even more befuddling, and advocate for a single system, with standards set by the Food & Drug Administration,” Mahoney writes.

But until the perfect world exists -- whatever that may be -- small wins can be measured as gains by all parties.

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