From the truth about the McDonald's hot coffee lawsuit to evidence that its pork suppliers lie about animal welfare, we TreeHuggers are not short of reasons to dislike Ronald and friends. And I am not about to start arguing that the Golden Arches can be a force for good.
But there is one thing to be said for McDonalds -- it's big, really big. So much like Wal-Mart, when it does take steps to reduce its impact, those steps have gigantic knock on effects.When McDonalds installs electric vehicle charging, it sends a message about the future of transportation. When it drops an inhumane egg supplier (albeit under intense activist pressure), it focuses the minds of the rest of the industry.
And conversely when it fails to go cage-free in America, the factory farming industry breathes a sigh of relief and carries on as normal.
So it's within this context that we should evaluate news, reported on by Mark Bittman last week, that McDonald's will map out a path for eliminating gestational crates in its pork supply.
A gestational crate, used in intensive pig farming, means a pregnant pig lives in a 7-foot by 2-foot metal enclosure for the four-month duration of her pregnancy. Once she is pregnant again, back in the crate she goes -- meaning most of a sow's adult life is spent in this small crate.
It doesn't mean we greenies will be woolfind down Big Macs anytime soon, and it does not mean that fast food is a reformable industry. But it is nevertheless a gigantic leap for the welfare of those animals that have the misfortune to find themselves in factory farming conditions. More from Bittman:
The effect on the industry will be huge, because in the world of big-time meat supply, there are two kinds of producers: those who sell to McDonald’s and those wish they could. When, in 1999, McDonald’s requested that its suppliers give caged hens 72 square inches of space instead of 48 (72 is still smaller than a piece of 8×10 paper), not a single factory-farmed hen in the country was being raised with 72 inches of space. Yet the entire supply chain was converted in just 18 months, and 72 square inches is now effectively the industry standard.
Switching from gestation crates to group sow housing is more labor- and capital-intensive, requiring changes that will take money and time, so an 18-month turnaround is unrealistic. But it’s likely that within a few years gestation crates will be history for most pork producers, and that’s a major victory.
Sure, the conditions for pigs in factory farms are still likely to be, let's face it, horrific. But this is a major step in the right direction and should be recognized as such. Maybe they can also do something about these exploding pigs we've been hearing about.
Head over to The New York Times for Mark Bittman's full piece on the McDonalds announcement.