Aaron Smith, CNNMoney
NEW YORK — McDonald’s said it will get its pork suppliers to phase out the use of immobilizing cages for pregnant pigs, a move that was applauded by the Humane Society of the United States, but not the pork industry.
“McDonald’s believes gestation stalls are not a sustainable production system for the future,” said the fast food chain in a press release. “There are alternatives that we think are better for the welfare of sows.”
Animal activists oppose the use of gestation stalls, which are cages that keep individual sows in close confines while they’re pregnant.
“Confining pigs in gestation crates is arguably the cruelest practice in factory farming,” said Josh Balk, spokesman for the Humane Society of the U.S. “These are iron maidens that are barely larger than the pigs’ own bodies.”
Balk said that at the farms that use gestation stalls, sows spend most of their lives in the confining cages, where they have no room to move. He said that a better alternative is the use of large pen areas that “allow pigs to be more like pigs.”
Balk added that the European Union and eight U.S. states have already banned the use of gestation stalls.
But the pork industry doesn’t see it that way. Dave Warner, spokesman for the National Pork Producers Council, said that, contrary to popular opinion, pens aren’t necessarily better than the stalls.
“Pens have some real problems,” he said. “Let’s say you put ten pregnant sows in a pen. They get mean.”
The sows often bite each other, resulting in painful injuries, he said. When a farmer enters a pen to care for an injured sow, he or she could be at risk, he added.
“When a worker goes into a pen with ten pregnant sows, there’s a worker safety issue,” he said.
John McGlone, director of the Pork Industry Institute at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, said that scientific studies of pens and stalls have determined that their impact on the pigs’ quality of life is essentially the same. But he acknowledged that it doesn’t matter, as far as the perception is concerned.
“What we have here is a situation where the science says the two systems are equal, but the public perception is bad,” he said. “Some people have an ethical problem with placing a sow in a situation where she can’t turn around or socialize with other animals. You cannot convince the majority of people that it’s OK to house sows in crates.”
Pork is a critical ingredient in many of McDonald’s menu items, including the McRib, the Angus Chipotle BBQ Bacon and the Angus Bacon & Cheese sandwiches.
For a major pork buyer like McDonald’s to shun the use of gestation stalls is no small matter. According to the Humane Society of the U.S., leading pork-producing states like Iowa, where pork is a $4 billion industry, as well as Illinois, Minnesota, Oklahoma and North Carolina, do not ban the use of gestation stalls.
U.S. pork production is a $97 billion industry, directly supporting 35,000 full-time jobs in 2007, according to the most recent statistics from the National Pork Producers Council. In that year, nearly 21 billion pounds of pork were processed from about 105 million hogs.
In addition to supplying domestic consumers and companies like McDonald’s, U.S. pork is a major export industry, accounting for $3.1 billion worth of exports in 2007, according to the council. Japan is the biggest importer of U.S. pork, followed by Mexico, Russia and China.
McGlone and Warner both said that the cost of switching from stalls to pens depends on how much time is required. Farmers generally change their equipment every 10 years, so if McDonald’s was willing to be flexible with the conversion time, it would soften the financial hardship, they said.
But if not, it could drive small farmers out of business, said Warner. Even still, he said he prefers that businesses guide the market instead of the federal government.
“This is a business decision that they made,” said Warner, referring to McDonald’s. “We have no problem with that. It is the free market, and it’s not the federal government dictating.”