McDonald’s Ends Use of Gestation Crates: Victory?

So, as you may have heard, McDonald’s has decided to require its pork suppliers to phase out the use of sow gestation stalls–the cruel apparatuses designed (ostensibly) to keep pigs from fighting. Animal advocacy groups are predictably thrilled. “The HSUS has been a long time advocate for ending the use of gestation crates,” explained president and CEO Wayne Pacelle, adding, “It’s just wrong to immobilize animals for their whole lives in crates barely larger than their bodies.” Mark Bittman (sigh) went all wobbly in the face of the news, calling it “a major victory.”

Major victory? Really?

It’s hard to deny that McDonald’s decision, assuming it’s effectively carried out, will result in millions of sows living more fulfilling lives before they’re culled for slaughter. It’s also hard to deny that factory farmers are all in a huff–which is always a sign that a good decision has been made. An editorial in Beef Magazine explained, “Can pork producers meet these demands? Yes. Will there be a cost? Yes.” In this limited sense, McDonald’s commitment to ending the use of gestation stalls can be called a victory. Fine. But why am I not uncorking the champagne?

I’ve addressed this conundrum in past posts through the analogy of wrongful imprisonment. If I’m wrongfully imprisoned, I sure as hell would want advocacy groups working tirelessly to improve the conditions within prisons, especially the one holding me. More time outdoors, cleaner facilities, and better food would all improve the quality of my imprisoned life. That said, I’m not sure I’d ever use the word victory, or feel the corresponding urge to put on a party hat, unless wrongful imprisonment itself were ended and I was freed.

I appreciate HSUS’s efforts in encouraging McDo’s to end the use of torture devices for sows.  I genuinely do. But I’d be a lot more inclined to punch the air with a triumphant fist if Pacelle had gone a critical step further and declared not only that it’s “just wrong to immobilize animals for their whole lives,” but that it’s also wrong for humans to raise animals for food, period, and the elimination of gestation crates is a step toward the elimination of factory farming.  Now those would have been words worth celebrating.

Critics of organizations such as HSUS frequently condemn their efforts as “welfarist,” aiding and abetting, it is said, the very system central to widespread animal suffering.  Well, until advocacy groups who fight for incremental changes within current systems of animal production contextualize such “victories” in the larger quest for a world without animal agriculture, the welfarist charge will stick all over them like sap.

Mark Bittman (sigh) declared (or at least his headline did) that “McDonald’s Does the Right Thing.” It’s due to this widespread failure to rhetorically cast welfare victories in the larger framework of veganism that Bittman (sigh) can endorse such a view. We need to remind ourselves that the only right thing McDonald’s can do is vanish.


About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

6 Responses to McDonald’s Ends Use of Gestation Crates: Victory?

  1. Al Nowatzki says:

    Nobody should expect HSUS to, “contextualize such ‘victories’ in the larger quest for a world without animal agriculture,” since HSUS itself states that it is not opposed to animal agriculture. From their website (

    “The HSUS supports those farmers and ranchers who give proper care to their animals, act in accordance with the basic ethic of compassion to sentient creatures under their control, and practice and promote humane and environmentally sustainable agriculture.”


  2. Carolle says:

    “We need to remind ourselves that the only right thing McDonald’s can do is vanish” and the like should vanish as well. Great piece, thanks McWilliams!

  3. BlessUsAll says:

    Am I satisfied if a social justice group forces a warden to improve the prison conditions for inmates who are not guilty of the crime they’ve been wrongly convicted of committing?

    No. The only way to undo the injustice is to force the criminal justice system to overturn the false convictions and free the innocent ones.

    Same with the pigs.

    Ordering the pork industry to phase out gestation crates allows the Sausage McMuffin purveyor to look like an angel with wings — if a belated one. All of its pregnant customers, who so readily identify with those stalled sows, are probably jumping for joy!

    The devilish truth is, the fast-food giant is still serving the flesh of innocent animals, still making millions for being complicit in their deaths.

    Where a false victory is in the offing, we’ll always find HSUS making giddy pronouncements, ever hopeful of raking in more donations. Why bother with that nasty little detail about the animals being held against their will and eventually murdered? The victory, as far as HSUS is concerned, lies in letting them out of their small cells and into the pig-making factory’s exercise yard for some pig play.

    As they say, when pigs fly….

  4. jaime says:

    im wondering what your thoughts on the idea that it might be counterproductive of HSUS to come out with such an abolitionist tone? wouldn’t they be risking the collaboration of these huge conglomerates? would love to hear what you think. what would happen to HSUS and all the good they do if they were to stand up and say something along the lines of liberation rhetoric.

  5. Provoked says:

    McDonalds, McDevils, McCruelty, McDeath and all the other carrion peddlers – Yes! They all must McVanish! POOF!

  6. Maybe not a victory with a capital V, but still a positive gain methinks. Because if I was a prisoner (whether pig or person) I’d still want more room until I was released. And why other vegans would deny this bit of comfort baffles me.

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