IT’S A sign of progress in the food industry when good ethics are seen as good business. Last week, McDonalds announced that it would require its pork suppliers to phase out the use of “gestation pens,’’ the 2-foot-by-7-foot metal cages that some industrial farms use to hold breeding sows.
Animal-rights advocates, including the Humane Society of the United States, have long complained that the pens are unsanitary and cruel. The European Union, New Zealand, and eight US states have already banned their use. A move from a giant restaurant chain will pressure the agriculture industry even more: McDonalds buys 1 percent of the US pork supply to make its Sausage McMuffins, breakfast platters, and McRib sandwiches.
With this policy shift, McDonalds has clearly succumbed to pressure — from advocacy groups, and from its competition. Sustainable supply chains were once mostly the province of small business and niche marketing: Eleven years ago, Chipotle, the burrito chain that was then a subsidiary of McDonalds, started requiring its pork suppliers to raise pigs outdoors or in large cages, and to feed them vegetarian or antibiotic-free food.
Chipotle is still at it — its eye-catching ad during the Grammys declared the moral virtue of small farms — but demand for ethical farming has also gone mainstream. Wendy’s and Burger King have already ended the use of gestation pens. Wendy’s touts its supply-chain ethics as a selling point. In an age of environmental anxiety, morality on the farm has a social cachet, and a potential payoff at the cash register.