McDonald’s Set to Phase Out Suppliers’ Use of Sow Crates
By STEPHANIE STROM Published: February 13, 2012
The McDonald’s Corporation said on Monday that it would begin working with its pork suppliers to phase out the use of so-called gestational crates, the tiny stalls in which sows are housed while pregnant.
Animal rights advocates have singled out the crates, known as sow stalls, as inhumane, and several states have moved to ban or restrict their use not only in pork production, but also in the production of eggs and veal.
“McDonald’s believes gestation stalls are not a sustainable production system for the future,” Dan Gorsky, senior vice president for supply chain management for McDonald’s North America, said in a statement. “There are alternatives we think are better for the welfare of sows.”
At a little more than 2 feet by 7 feet, sow stalls are too small for a pregnant pig to turn around. Being confined in a stationary position for the four months of an average pregnancy leads to a variety of health problems, including urinary tract infections, weakened bone structures, overgrown hooves and mental stress, according to animal rights advocates.
About 60 to 70 percent of the more than five million breeding sows in the United States are kept in the crates.
Several large suppliers, including Smithfield Farms and Cargill, have already begun reducing their use of the crates, but a large portion of the pork supply still comes from pigs born from sows raised in crates, Bob Langert, McDonald’s vice president for sustainability, said in an interview. “When we were looking at this over the last year, we could see more needed to be done.”
McDonald’s has asked its five direct suppliers of bacon, Canadian bacon and sausage to provide their plans for reducing reliance on sow stalls. It said it would assess those plans and announce what steps it might take in response in May.
“It’s not a simple process,” Mr. Langert said. “We buy a finished product from our suppliers, who are buying from a processing facility that is buying from producers and farmers who raise the pigs — who in turn are buying piglets from farmers who have the sows. There are lots of stakeholders and collaboration that are going to be involved.”
Dr. Jodi Sterle, an expert on swine reproductive management at Iowa State University, said no easy alternative to sow stalls existed because feeding pigs is complicated by their hierarchical nature. “When they are raised in groups, there is competition for food, water and space, and especially for food,” she said.
Producers have tried a method called trickle feeding, in which small amounts of food are put into feeders throughout the day, but dominant sows tend to camp out by the feeders and push more passive animals away.
Another method uses a microchip embedded in an ear tag to manage a sow’s diet and feed her in a “cafeteria,” but animals sometimes find ways of overcoming that technology, too. “Basically, there’s no science that provides the perfect answer right now,” Dr. Sterle said.
The National Pork Producers Council, a trade association, said in a statement that it supported the McDonald’s effort. “Pork industry customers have expressed a desire to see changes in how pigs are raised,” the council said. “Farmers are responding and modifying their practices accordingly.”
During the last decade, the Humane Society of the United States has worked to raise awareness of the problems caused by the use of restrictive crates in the meat and poultry industry. Several states, including Florida and California, have passed laws banning the use of restrictive crates in meat and egg production.
The Humane Society has been in contact with McDonald’s over the years about the crate issue but had stepped up the intensity of its discussions over the last month, according to Wayne Pacelle, the society’s president.
The buying power of McDonald’s adds a significant new dimension to the war on the practice. “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,” said Paul Shapiro, senior director for farm animal protection at the Humane Society.
McDonald’s buys just 1 percent of the total pork produced in the country, but its influence is much larger. When the company required its egg suppliers to increase the amount of cage space devoted to their hens in 1999, for example, other fast-food chains followed suit and soon the vast majority of egg producers had given their chickens more space.
Burger King was the first large fast-food chain to reduce its purchases of pork produced in facilities that use gestation crates, taking that step in 2007 at the same time it began adding cage-free eggs to its supply chain, according to the Humane Society.
Before that, the celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck announced that he would stop serving foie gras, which is the liver of force-fed geese, and no longer buy veal, pork or eggs from producers that use restrictive crates.
In 2007, Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer, pledged to end the use of gestation crates in the facilities it owns by 2017, a date it postponed during the economic downturn. The Humane Society then conducted an undercover investigation, releasing video of pigs in Smithfield’s stalls, and the company once again pledged to stop using the crates by 2017.
The Humane Society said that Cargill is 50 percent crate-free now, and Hormel Foods recently announced that it would match Smithfield’s pledge.