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It would be fair to say that Burger King and McDonald's have been competing for U.S. and world burger domination ever since their first hamburgers hit the cookers in the 1950s. The two companies try to one-up each other whenever they get the chance. 

McDonald's loves to say it was first on the scene in the U.S., and the company celebrated its 60th year of operation in 2015 with a “1955 Burger” as a “tribute to where it all began.” Except it ain't true. McDonald's opened its doors on April 15, 1955, four months after Burger King opened shop in Miami. Burger King fired back with the use of a new service mark “Since 1954.”  

In 2012, the battleground for fast-food supremacy targeted the cruel, tragic use by Big Meat of gestation crates.  McDonald's made a huge PR splash in May with an announcement of a ten-year plan:

“The goal of McDonald's ten-year plan, which was developed with input from its suppliers, pork producers and animal welfare experts, is to source all pork for its U.S. business from producers that do not house pregnant sows in gestation stalls by the end of 2022... As an interim step, by 2017, McDonald's will seek to source pork for its U.S. business only from producers who share its commitment to phase out gestation stalls.”

Senior vice president of McDonald's North America Supply Chain Management Dan Gorskey put it this way:

“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. McDonald’s wants to see the end of sow confinement in gestation stalls in our supply chain.”

It seemed so clear at the time. End confinement of sows in gestation stalls.

Not to be outdone, Burger King fired back in October, announcing it would completely phase out pig gestation crates by 2017 and — for good measure — phase out cages for chickens as well.

When 2017 rolled around, Burger King pushed its deadline for ending gestation crates by 2022 in the U.S. and 2025 for sourcing 100% cage-free eggs in the U.S., Canada, Mexico and Latin America. 

And as for McDonald's … well, things have gotten very murky in recent days. Enter Wall Street activist investor Carl Icahn. Yeah, that Carl Icahn

McDonald's in February announced by the end of the year it expects to source between 85% and 90% of U.S. pork from pigs not confined in gestation stalls during pregnancy. McDonald's says it currently is at 60%, and it expects to reach 100% by the end of 2024.

So what is going on? As it turns out, McDonald's now says that its May 2012 announcement regarded “confirmed pregnant sows.” That's a huge loophole because once a gilt or sow is inseminated, it can take five weeks to confirm the pregnancy.  That's five weeks of a 16-week gestation period locked up in a 7 foot by 2 foot cell. That's a far cry from Gorskey saying a decade ago that McDonald's wanted to see the end of sow confinement in gestation stalls. Nothing about confirmed pregnancies in 2012. No sir.

So maybe it's not all that out of left field that Icahn thinks McDonald's is breaking its promise to ban the use of gestation crates rather than simply sending pregnant sows to group housing.

McDonald's says it can't meet Icahn's demand — no-way no-how — because it goes against “veterinary science” whatever the heck that is. McDonald's isn't really saying. The American Veterinary Medical Association 2015 paper doesn't make the case that gestation crates are superior to others:  

“As no universally accepted weighting system exists, there is no clear consensus as to which is the superior system across all situations. However, the public is generally more critical of gestation stall housing than other systems, which has led to voluntary and mandatory transition to alternative housing systems by some producers.” 

McDonald's also says getting rid of gestation cages could “harm the company’s shared pursuit of providing customers with quality products at accessible prices.” Let me translate … McDonald's thinks customers will be turned away by a price hike attached to getting rid of gestation cages.

For his part, Icahn doesn't appear to be going away. He owns 200 shares of McDonald's stock and is itching to put Green Century Capital Management president Leslie Samuelrich and Bon Appétit executive Maisie Ganzler on McDonald's board at the 2022 annual shareholder's meeting. Presumably, Samuelrich and Ganzler don't think too highly of gestation crates.

McDonald's had nothing to say about gestation crates in its 2021 annual report beyond some puffery about “...improving the health and welfare of the animals within its supply chain.” Maybe the company didn't think anyone was paying attention.

Well, Big Mac has a fight on its hands now. And if Icahn's porcine crusade can get some traction, maybe some pigs will be treated with greater compassion and care. Google gestation crates.  Look at the pictures. Pigs in the wild can live up to two decades. Production sows are often killed and replaced after three to four years. Four years in a cell. The pictures don't lie.  Pigs deserve better.  And we should demand it.  

About Dave Dickey

Dave Dickey

Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for Investigate Midwest covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. His opinions are his own and do not reflect Investigate Midwest. Email him at dave.dickey@investigatemidwest.org.