Getting in under the wire of its May deadline, McDonald’s USA announced on Thursday the company will give its pork suppliers 10 years to phase out gestation-sow stalls. The process started in February when the United States’ No. 1 burger chain announced that its suppliers should report back with their sow-housing conversion plans by May.

McDonald’s reports that its 10-year plan was developed with input from suppliers, pork producers and animal welfare experts. The goal is to source all pork for McDonald’s U.S. business from producers who do not house gestating sows in stalls by the end of 2022.

As an interim step, the company reports, by 2017 it will work to source pork only from producers who are committed phasing out gestation stalls. To achieve this, McDonald’s officials say they will work with producers and suppliers to develop traceability systems that will verify the pork comes from sources that don’t use gestation stalls and will assess how to best support producers migrating away from gestation stalls.

“This change is complex and will require additional resources. The 10-year timeline that McDonald’s has outlined is necessary to research and identify better housing alternatives and ensure proper training of employees,” says Temple Grandin, animal welfare scientist at Colorado State University and member of McDonald’s Animal Welfare Council. “This is really good forward thinking, and I commend McDonald’s for doing it.”

“Any system will have animal welfare concerns, but I see real opportunity for innovation and better alternatives,” says Ed Pajor, professor of animal welfare, University of Calgary and member of McDonald’s Animal Welfare Council. “This plan provides a 10-year window for McDonald’s producers and suppliers to develop practical and sustainable implementation steps to achieve the phase out of sow gestation stalls.”

But not everyone in the pork sector supports McDonald’s decision. 

National Pork Board (NPB) president expressed his disappointment in McDonald’s announcement. “McDonald's decision could put significant pressure on smaller farmers who use gestation stalls to care for their animals,” says Everett Forkner, a farmer from Richards, Mo. "For a producer who has built a new barn in the past few years, McDonald's announced timeline could force them to make significant new investments. My fellow producers are going to have to go to a banker with a plan that is likely to increase costs and reduce productivity-- not a plan that is likely to inspire great confidence in a banker or investor."

Forkner said publicly held pork production companies with access to capital and bond markets may be able to make the conversion more easily, "and that's fine if that's what they choose to do." He adds that consumers will likely end up paying for higher production costs, but in the meantime the added costs for producers could force some to leave the business.

“We value our relationship with our suppliers, and our shared commitment to animal welfare,” says Dan Gorsky, senior vice president of McDonald’s North America Supply Chain Management. “Our approach seeks to build on the work already in place, and we are also sensitive to the needs of the smaller, independent pork producers in phasing out of gestation stalls.”

Forkner points to peer-reviewed research that overwhelmingly shows both individual sow stalls and open pens are appropriate ways to provide good care to pregnant sows. In the end, he contends, decisions such as McDonald’s means that others are telling farmers which of the two systems works best on their farms.

"I've been in this business a long time," Forkner adds. "On my own farm I moved from open pens to stalls many years ago because too many sows were being injured or denied feed. When sows are thrown together they can become very aggressive. Dominant sows physically attack the others, bite them and steal their food.  The housing used by most farmers was designed to protect sows from this bullying while they are most vulnerable, during their pregnancies.” 

He adds that NPB supports the continued exploration of new and better ways to protect pregnant sows. "Farmers are adopting improvements all the time as they study their farms and their animals.  Going backward, though, will just put a huge financial burden on smaller pig farmers while doing nothing to improve the health and well-being of our pigs," Forkner concludes.

McDonald's USA serves more than 26 million customers daily in its 14,000 U.S. restaurants.