McDonald’s made the decision to require its pork suppliers to phase out gestation crates due to internal and external pressure. Organizations such as the Humane Society and other animals rights groups had been pressuring McDonald’s for years because the use of gestation crates is essentially equivalent to putting sows in prison for their entire lives. These organizations were absolutely right, and McDonald’s responded to the pressure by making a change.
The change they are making is from gestation crates to group sow housing. I did a quick google search for group sow housing. What I found is that the change is comparable to moving an American prisoner from solitary confinement to the normal part of the prison. The sows are free to roam in a much bigger space, but they are still confined and prevented from ever being outside. By the definition of the word improvement, yes, the sows’ lives will be improved but only marginally. The reality is that in the practice of farming these pigs, we reduce their lives from ‘living creature’ to ‘food for humans’. They are living creatures, but their fates have already been decided by the time they are born. That is not much of a life. Somebody might make the argument that the pigs do not know what is happening to them because they have no capacity for critical self-reflection. Maybe that is true. But we know, and many people would take one look at the way we treat those pigs and get a queasy feeling in their stomach that tells them something is not right. That gut feeling is enough to know that something should be done to make a change.
If I were an animal welfare theorist with a deontological ethic towards animals, I would approve of the decision to ban gestation crates because it is a step in the right direction, but I would not be satisfied. My goal would be to take steps towards animal equality, but I would realize that, historically, big movements against prejudice happen incrementally. There are many examples of this type of transition including the civil rights movement and women’s rights movement. Movements like these take time and much debate because there are society-wide implications of the change including social, moral, and economic implications. In his New York Times article about McDonald’s decision, Bittman notes that “switching from gestation crates to group sow housing is more labor- and capital- intensive, requiring changes that will make money and time.” But he also describes the food industry and points out the influential role that McDonald’s has in steering the industry toward certain standards. Bittman includes a quotation from Humane Society spokesman, Paul Shapiro: “…sending this type of a signal to the pork industry will really help move the issue forward. There is now no future in gestation crates in the United States.” Again, if I were an animal rights theorist I would approve, but I would also believe that McDonald’s can do much more.
McDonald’s has the ability to create a mental switch for the food industry. This is one of the reasons why I would object to McDonald’s decision: they have a responsibility to do more. Bittman says: “Yes, sows will still be raised in what can only be called industrial conditions and no, the number of animals killed for meat will not decrease.” If it is my goal to drive a mental switch in our practices towards animals based on a deontological ethic that pigs have inherent value, simply moving the sows to a larger area means very little if they are still being killed systematically. McDonald’s has the obligation to do more. “McDonald’s is among the most important food companies in the world, and one could argue that it and Walmart are the true pace-setters: what they do, others will do.” In a world run by deontological animal welfare theorists, McDonald’s would, if they were not struck from the face of the planet, be forced to completely change their animal practices. Based on Bittman’s assessment, this would lead to a change in the rest of the industry as well. “When McDonald’s does the right thing, it’s a game-changer…let’s keep reminding them that there’s a long way to go.” Based on their powerful stance in the industry, I would object to their lack of radical leadership in the animal rights space. Animal ethics and business ethics have a tendency to clash on an epic scale. What is considered right in business is not the same as what is considered right in the animal rights space. I would object that they are willing to choose profits over the lives of living beings.
I object to the policy because McDonald’s is not doing more to lead the food industry towards more ethical behavior. However, as mentioned above, changes in prejudice require incremental steps towards a better future. Thus, I approve of any step towards animal rights progress including this policy change by McDonald’s. It will be intriguing to follow McDonald’s policy changes in the future to observe how their actions affect the industry’s, and society’s, mindset on animal rights.