McDonald’s Corporation is calling on its U.S. pork suppliers to end the use of gestation-sow stalls. The world’s largest restaurant chain announced today that it will be studying suppliers’ options and will require them to outline plans to phase out the stalls.

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) supports the move and followed with a news conference of its own. “We expect this to have a catalytic affect, for both foodservice (restaurants) and retail outlets,” says Wayne Pacelle, HSUS president and chief executive officer. McDonald’s move “makes it clear that there’s no future for gestation crates in the pork industry. This decision will accelerate the movement to eliminate gestation crates.”

He cited last week’s announcement from Hormel Foods that it will work toward eliminating gestation-sow stalls from company production systems by 2017, as well as Smithfield’s recommitment to do so in its December statement, as examples of the issue gaining even more traction. Also, Cargill currently has taken about 50 percent of its sows out of gestation stalls but has not committed to a timeline for the other portion.

“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,” says Dan Gorsky, senior vice president of McDonald’s North America Supply Chain Management. “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.”

McDonald’s and HSUS both point to Temple Grandin, Colorado State University animal scientist and animal well-being expert as supporting the move away from gestation-sow stalls. “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,” HSUS quoted Grandin in its news release. “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.”

Paul Shapiro, HSUS Senior Director, Farm Animal Protection, estimates about 30 percent of U.S. sows are now housed in group gestation systems. “Some are more welfare friendly than others,” he adds “It is impossible to have positive animal welfare with crates.” When pressed, he cited electronic-sow-feeding systems (ESF) as “one of the more promising group housing systems.”

Asked how long McDonald’s may give its pork suppliers to make the change, Shapiro points to the chain’s action on egg suppliers and space allowances. “McDonald’s gave them 18 months to change,” he says. “This is a different system, it will require more time.”  

“We’re not asking the pork industry to change on a leap and a prayer; there are viable alternatives,” Pacelle says. “When a company like McDonald’s, which is very focused on price, makes this type of move, it shows that this can be done.”  

During its news conference, HSUS officials hinted at the fact that its federal housing legislative efforts, currently tied to the United Egg Producers (UEP) and battery cages for laying hens, could be expanded.

Pacelle says the HSUS/UEP federal housing legislation has good support and he expects it will build. “The knee-jerk reaction from other agriculture sectors, against the bill, will not read well because the action came from the egg producers,” he says.

HSUS points to the past decade as one of “progress,” citing that 8 states have taken action to eliminate the use of gestation-sow stalls and address other farm-animal related issues. “When you look at this in its broadest sense, we’re seeing action in the law, production and retail sectors,” Pacelle says. “We’re well down the road, but more work needs to be done.”