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'Earthquake' in the pig business: McDonald's to end use of restraining crates

McDonald’s says it will require its U.S. pork suppliers to detail their plans to phase out using sow gestation stalls -– in which pigs cannot turn around -- following similar moves by a number of countries, states and other companies to end a practice that activists say is inhumane and can lead to health problems in the animals.

More than 5.8 million pigs are used for breeding in the U.S. pork industry, with an estimated 60 to 70 percent confined to gestation crates, or sow stalls, during their 112- to 115-day pregnancies. The metal crates are only a little bigger than the sow and are typically placed side-by-side in rows -- often with more than 20 sows to a row, according to a 2011 report by The Humane Society of the United States.

“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,” Dan Gorsky, senior vice president of McDonald’s North America Supply Chain Management, said in a statement dated Friday. “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 under way to reach that goal."

The crated animals can “suffer a number of significant welfare problems,” such as an elevated risk of urinary tract infections, weakened bones, overgrown hooves, lameness and behavioral restrictions, said the Humane Society report. Being confined prevents the sows from filling basic psychological needs and engaging in their natural behavior, such as rooting, grazing, wallowing and nest-building.

McDonald's announcement "came after years of dialogue" between the Humane Society and McDonald’s Corp., Wayne Pacelle, the nonprofit’s president and CEO, wrote on his blog.

"This is a bit of an earthquake in the world of the pork industry, with aftershocks that will be felt throughout the entire food retail sector. McDonald’s movement away from gestation crates is the latest acknowledgement from food sellers that extreme confinement practices have to go," he said.

The Humane Society said it has worked to pass laws to ban gestation crates in eight states: Florida, Ohio, Arizona, California, Colorado, Maine, Michigan and Oregon. A number of retailers have taken measures to shift from producers that still use the crates.

Sweden and the United Kingdom ban use of the crates, which are also being phased out in the European Union, New Zealand and Tasmania, according to the Humane Society.

Alternatives to the crates include free-range and pasture-based systems, indoor group housing and “turn-around” stalls, the Humane Society said in its report.

Some animals rights groups were advising a wait-and-see approach to McDonald's plan.

"We think that the company still has a long way to go to stop the suffering of pigs and also chickens, but we’re very encouraged that it’s now at least agreed to look at abandoning the 'iron maidens,’” Lindsay Rajt, a spokeswoman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, told msnbc.com. "We’re just cautioning consumers to ... watch and wait."

Nathan Runkle, the executive director for Mercy for Animals, welcomed the fast-food chain's actions, saying it was a "step in the right direction" that he hoped others would follow, and he also urged the company to make "similar commitments to improve the welfare of other animals raised and killed for its restaurants."

McDonald's will share the results from its assessment with producers and outline its next steps in May, Gorsky said. The company purchases 1 percent of the total pork production in the United States every year.

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