McFib? The Conditions at McDonald's McRib Pork Supplier

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The Humane Society has filed a complaint alleging that Smithfield Foods, McDonald's pork supplier, crams its pigs in tiny gestation crates

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10:30 a.m.: This post has been updated to include a response from Smithfield Foods.

Perhaps you've heard the news: The McRib is back! "Even your dreams dream about this," says McDonald's about the return of this "fantastically flavorful," "sweetly scrumptious," "sensationally savory" pork sandwich. Further distinguishing the McRib is the implication that the pork comes from happy pigs raised under humane and sustainable conditions. McDonald's buys its pork from Smithfield Foods, which employs Dr. Temple Grandin as an animal welfare advisor and, perhaps as a result, brands itself as "100 percent committed to ... animal care." In an outburst of appreciation for the work Smithfield does, McDonald's recently recognized the Virginia-based company with a "supplier sustainability" award.

HSUS found that Smithfield pigs were living in hellish conditions where basic needs were systematically denied.

But the Humane Society of the United States isn't celebrating. Yesterday, HSUS filed a legal complaint (PDF) with the United States Securities and Exchange Commission alleging that Smithfield is misleading consumers about its welfare practices. In a series of videos titled "Taking the Mystery out of Pork Production," Smithfield contends that its animals are raised under "ideal" conditions in an environment where "every need is met."

In a short media statement responding to HSUS, Smithfield Foods denied the allegations. "We are proud of our unparalleled track record as a sustainable food producer and stand confidently behind our company's public statements concerning animal care and environmental stewardship," Smithfield Foods says in the statement, which was forwarded when The Atlantic asked for comment. "Any objective assessment of our practices would conclude that Smithfield and our employees are behaving in a socially responsible manner."

A 2010 undercover HSUS investigation, however, revealed information altogether to the contrary. HSUS found that Smithfield pigs were living in hellish conditions where basic needs were systematically unmet. Female pigs were crammed into gestation crates, preventing movement for most of their lives; many crates were coated in blood from the mouths of pigs chewing the metal bars of their crates; a sick pig was shot in the head with a captive bolt gun and thrown into a dumpster while still alive; prematurely born piglets routinely fell through the gate's slats into a manure pit; castration and tail docking took place without anesthesia; and employees tossed baby pigs into carts as if they were stuffed animals. The investigator saw many lame pigs but never a vet.

The curious thing is that both McDonald's and Smithfield know that gestation crates are bad news for a pig. Temple Grandin, as an advisor to Smithfield, declared that the crates "have to go," and in 2007 Smithfield agreed to phase out the crates by 2017. The company has since rescinded this promise. In a company video, McDonald's admitted that group housing "is best for the welfare and well-being of those sows." None of this has been lost on Paul Shapiro, senior director of farm animal protection at HSUS. "It doesn't take a veterinarian to know that locking a 500-pound animal in a cage so cramped she can't even turn around for months on end isn't exactly 'ideal,'" he explains. McDonald's, he adds, "should heed the advice of its own animal welfare advisors and dump gestation crates from its supply chain."

In the meantime (actually, for all time), the rest of us should just say no to the McRib.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

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James McWilliams is an associate professor of history at Texas State University, San Marcos, and author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly.

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