Pork industry responds to McDonald's changes

Feb 17, 2012

McDonald’s Corporation announced last week that it would begin developing a plan to transition its pork supply away from farmers who use conventional sow gestation stalls.

According to a McDonald’s release, the company will begin requiring its U.S. pork suppliers to outline their plans to phase out the use of sow gestation stalls.

“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,” said Dan Gorsky, senior vice president of McDonald’s North America Supply Chain Management, in a press release. “McDonald’s wants to see the end of sow confinement in gestation stalls in our supply chain. We are beginning an assessment with our U.S. suppliers to determine how to build on the work already underway to reach that goal. In May, after receiving our suppliers’ plans, we’ll share results from the assessment and our next steps.”

Phasing out farrowing stalls is not included in the plan, but critics wonder if it’s just a matter of time before they are added.

“While confining a sow for three weeks may not be ideal in some people’s minds, the welfare of a 3-pound baby pig that is suffocated by a 500-pound sow is not particularly high, making this piece of equipment far more acceptable, we think, even to animal welfarists,” CME reports.

While there has been a lot of McDonald’s publicity, they are not the first to take this path. They just happen to be a media magnet. McDonald’s joins a growing list of food producers and retailers, including Smithfield Foods, Hormel, Cargill, Burger King and Wolfgang Puck, that have agreed to move away from pork raised in gestation crates after pressure from outside non-agriculture groups.

Gorsky added, “We are pleased to see a number of our U.S. suppliers adopting commercially viable alternatives. For example, Smithfield Foods and Cargill have made significant progress in this area. We applaud these, and future efforts.”

Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive officer of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), praised the announcement and predicted it would have a “catalytic” impact on what he called “holdouts.”

“They’re clearly the biggest pork buyer in the fastfood sector and the largest restaurant chain in the world,” Pacelle said. “So this will have seismic effect within the pork industry.”

The National Pork Board responded to McDonald´s announcement, standing by the science behind American Veterinary Medicine Association and the American Association of Swine Veterinarians research, that there are numerous ways, including sow gestation stalls, to provide proper care for sows. “Each housing system, including gestation stalls, open pens, free-access stalls and pastures, has welfare advantages and disadvantages that must be considered by an individual farmer. Regardless of the type of system used, what really matters is the individual care given to each pig—a mainstay of our industry’s Pork Quality Assurance Plus program,” the release said.

The use of gestation stalls dates back to the 1980s and began in Europe.

According to CME, the two primary benefits of gestation stalls include removing the stress of grouphoused sows, and they allow sows to be managed individually. Pigs are social, and quickly establish a pecking order, often at the detriment to the lower end sows. Broken bones, fighting, and weight loss are not uncommon. Sows in gestation stalls can be fed rations to meet their individual diet needs.

When the crates disappear and there is an increase in hog injuries and deaths, producers are concerned that it will open a new wave of trumped up animal cruelty charges from the sows’ behaviors in group settings.

The National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) noted that the decision by McDonald’s to study its suppliers’ use of individual sow housing “is an opportunity for the pork industry to respond to its customers.

“Farmers and animal care experts know that various types of housing systems can provide for the well-being of pigs. After an extensive review of scientific literature, the American Veterinary Medical Association determined that both individual sow housing and group housing can provide for the well-being of sows.

“Perhaps most importantly, today’s announcement reflects the best process for meeting evolving consumer demands— through the market, not through government mandates. Pork industry customers have expressed a desire to see changes in how pigs are raised. Farmers are responding and modifying their practices accordingly. That process is effective, it is efficient, and doesn’t require an act of Congress,” emphasized NPPC.

As groups such as HSUS continue to pressure the ag industry, government officials seem to be following suit, adding ag legislation as Congress progresses. But ag organizations continue to try to emphasize that less regulation is better.

“The pork industry supports a free market; it opposes legislative mandates on farmers pushed by special interest groups. Farmers are some of the most innovative and resourceful people in our country. They will continue to meet the ever-changing needs of customers and provide consumers with safe, nutritious and affordable food produced responsibly,” NPPC wrote.

Despite the changes, one thing seems to be certain, producers are survivors. There will be a cost, both to producers and, eventually, consumers.

“The tradeoffs are more sow injuries, higher feed costs (mobility takes energy), higher labor costs, and very likely more injuries to workers. Those will not be free and, in the long run, consumers pay all costs. That last one always seems hard to remember,” CME reports.

The latest McDonald’s media buzz follows a list of industry regulation changes pushed by animal rights activists, primarily HSUS.

In August, McDonald’s stopped putting beef trimmings treated with ammonia hydroxide, a USDAapproved ingredient that critics called “pink slime,” into its burgers after a number of food activists complained.

HSUS recently teamed up with the United Egg Producers to seek federal legislation that would mandate the type of cages required for egg-laying hens.

While this legislation would not impact pork and beef producers, it has the potential to open the door for a national standard for other livestock.

Several years ago, Mc- Donald’s began requiring its egg suppliers to increase the size of the cages for laying hens. Executives at the fast-food giant appear to be aligning with HSUS. Their ability to sensationalize the ag industry as evil and cruel is working.

In the end, the final measure will be in terms of cost of gain and price per pound, on whatever livestock commodity extreme-activists chose to target. And as each organization feels cornered into accepting the fate, be it larger pens or free-range animals, the consumer and the industry become more disjointed.

The more divided producers and consumers become, the more consumers will dictate rules and standards for the shrinking number of producers.

John Harrington, DTN’s livestock analyst, compared it to a return of the frenzy over George Orwell’s famous “Animal Farm.”

“It may be only a matter of time before the zealots of animal rights start quoting from Orwell’s classic to further inspire and arm their crusade against commercial meat production,” Harrington says.

But the problem seems to be a lack of understanding, or knowledge. The general consumer is just not getting the information needed, and that information needs to come from producers, not the animal rights activists.

“…let me readily admit that I have no idea what it means to be a ‘happy’ sow. And short of putting Arnold Ziffel or Miss Piggy on the psychiatrist’s couch, neither do any of you. On the other hand, I have a pretty good idea what it means to be a healthy and relatively painfree sow,” Harrington writes. — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor