On Monday, February 13th, McDonald’s and The Humane Society of the United States released a joint statement regarding gestation crates used to confine pregnant sows (female pigs). By May 2012, all of McDonald’s pork suppliers must provide the company with plans to phase out the crates. After assessing these plans, McDonald’s says that it will share the results and outline next steps.
First, a definition (from Wikipedia):
A gestation crate, also known as a sow stall, is a 7 ft by 2 ft metal enclosure used in intensive pig farming, in which a female breeding pig (sow) may be confined during pregnancy, and in effect for most of her adult life.
Thanks Wikipedia! Basically, gestation crates are cramped, cruel little spaces that 500-lb pregnant pigs are forced to hang out in for most of their short, miserable lives. They can’t even turn around. If you’re curious what they look like, here is a photo. I mean, I freak out when I’m sandwiched between two people on the subway. But unfortunately gestation crates are the industry standard and the vast majority of all pregnant sows live in them.
Advocates of the crates will tell you that they’re used to prevent fighting among the pigs, which is true enough. What these advocates often won’t tell you is that there are many other ways to prevent fighting, but those ways require understanding the animal’s basic natural behaviors and instincts and putting that knowledge to use. Perish the thought! Also, the crates cause a whole slew of other health issues for the pigs, which leads to sick pigs, which leads to us eating sick pigs.
So, let’s look at this McDonald’s effort. A lot of people have written about it – you can read what Mark Bittman and NPR have to say. I agree that this is a good thing. Where McDonald’s goes, the industry follows. If the company makes good on this effort, it’s likely that gestation crates will be a thing of the past in ten years. And that’s great! That is of course assuming McDonald’s makes good on this effort. Nowhere in their statement is there a guarantee (as Gawker so eloquently points out) and there is so much more work to do. Like, a lot more. We can embrace this as progress, but we can not ignore the impact McDonald’s has on minimum wage and general employee welfare (it’s one of the largest employers in the country), animal welfare (it’s the largest buyer of industrially-raised beef in the country), and the global health dialogue (it’s the world’s largest fast food restaurant).
As Spider-Man’s wise Uncle Ben once said, with great power comes great responsibility. We can applaud this effort, but we can also hold our nation’s biggest companies to higher standards. It is not unreasonable to do so. Yes, improving our food system takes time, thought, money and energy. It takes a desire to be better and to be different. It takes a cultural shift and a change in consumer values and a government whose food policies align with its nutrition talk. It takes a lot! There are obstacles. But if we can’t be bothered to work on overcoming these obstacles, then I don’t have a lot of faith in us and in our incredible capacity for innovation and creativity.
All of this brings me to Chipotle, a company which until 2006 was a subsidiary of McDonald’s. They ran an ad during the Grammys called “Back to the Start.” It’s a beautifully done ad with a simple message as I see it – basic humanity over industry. It highlights the challenges of being a participant in a broken system and it offers hope that we can reach a place where our values align with our business and where sustainability rules.
I didn’t write this to stop you from eating meat or to stop you from going to McDonald’s. I just think that we need to cultivate a heightened awareness of how we eat and why. I don’t mean to oversimplify an incredibly complex issue, but quite frankly I’m sick of focusing more on the obstacles than on the solutions. Kudos to McDonald’s for a step in the right direction, but let’s not forget about all the other steps that need to be taken.
Talk to me – what do think of all this? Are you impressed with McDonald’s effort? What more could be done? How much did you love that Chipotle ad? Willie Nelson has such great delivery.