McDonald's (MCD) has finally caught up with consumer sentiment on the subject of factory farming and the inhumane treatment of animals. The fast food giant is using its massive leverage to push its pork suppliers to phase out confining gestation crates for their pigs.
Back in November, McDonald's found itself in an uncomfortable spotlight when The Humane Society of the United States filed a complaint with the SEC against one of its major pork suppliers, Smithfield Foods (SFD), over its environmental and animal welfare policies. These included the use of cruel gestation crates for breeding sows while claiming "ideal" living conditions for the animals.
The timing coincided with McDonald's relaunch of its popular McRib sandwich, adding an extremely unappetizing PR angle to the event.
Confining breeding sows to gestation crates where they can't move for their entire lives is inhumane in itself, but the HSUS also pointed out that Smithfield had engaged in many other torturous practices. For example, the HSUS claimed Smithfield subjected animals to castration, tail-trimming, and tooth extraction without painkillers.
Plenty of other fast food chains have shown it's possible to eradicate these painful practices from their supply chains -- or at the very least make major progress in removing it. Wendy's (WEN), Sonic (SONC), Harris Teeter, Quiznos, and Safeway (SWY) have all been lauded by the HSUS for having made great strides to avoid pork suppliers that abuse their animals.
Smithfield, meanwhile, has announced its own plans to end inhumane treatment of its pigs by 2017.
Whole Foods Market (WFM) and Chipotle (CMG) have both completely banned suppliers that use gestation crates. And here's an ironic factoid: Chipotle was once owned by McDonald's, but it banned the practice from its supply chain nearly a dozen years ago.
Putting Mercy on the Menu
Now, McDonald's is finallygetting with the program. This week, the fast food behemoth announced plans to engage with its suppliers and demand outlines of their plans to phase out the practice.
"McDonald's believes gestation stalls are not a sustainable production system for the future. There are alternatives that we think are better for the welfare of sows," McDonald's spokesman Dan Gorsky said. "McDonald's wants to see the end of sow confinement in gestation stalls in our supply chain."
Scientist and animal welfare advocate Dr. Temple Grandin has chimed in, too:
Moving from gestation stalls to better alternatives will improve the welfare of sows and I'm pleased to see McDonald's working with its suppliers toward that end. It takes a thorough plan to address the training of animal handlers, proper feeding systems, and the significant financial investment and logistics involved with such a big change. I'm optimistic about this announcement.
HSUS, a tireless proponent of animal welfare initiatives, has applauded McDonald's new efforts, too, calling this development "important and promising."
Putting the 'Happy' Back in McDonald's Meals
McDonald's stance is indeed significant. This megacorporation wields major influence over suppliers. Mickey D's accounts for 1% of all pork purchased in the United States. Not just for McRib's of course: Think of all the bacon and sausage used in millions of McBreakfasts.
But anyone seeing the end of gestation crates as a win for animal rights over profits is likely mistaken. Iowa State University researchers have showed that pasture-based, group hog breeding (as opposed to confinement or indoor options) actually can be a cheaper approach to raising the animals.
Last but not least, haven't we got good, old-fashioned American ingenuity on our side? At one time, factory farming may have seemed "innovative" as our culture ramped up food production, but there's no reason America's innovative spirit can't be applied to use better, more humane ways to raise animals with respect and as little pain and suffering as possible.
Now that McDonald's is on the case, pork production should be on a far more positive path going forward.
Motley Fool analyst Alyce Lomax owns shares of Whole Foods Market. The Motley Fool owns shares of Chipotle Mexican Grill and Whole Foods Market. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of McDonald's, Whole Foods Market, and Chipotle Mexican Grill.