Though rarely on the menu, McDonald’s McRib sandwich has been the subject of much hand-wringing lately. The boneless pork creation, first introduced in 1982, is at the centre of McDonald’s latest campaign to win over ethically minded consumers. The fast-food giant recently called on U.S. pork producers, which also supply McDonald’s with bacon and sausages, to stop keeping pregnant sows in so-called gestation stalls, cramped cages that don’t allow the animals to turn around. “McDonald’s believes gestation stalls are not a sustainable production system for the future,” the company said. “There are alternatives that we think are better for the welfare of sows.”
It’s yet another example of how McDonald’s—indeed all fast-food companies—is becoming more image-conscious in an age of “natural” and “locally grown” foods. Case in point: a recent ad by Chipotle that featured cute, 3D animated pigs, and depicted how the food industry has evolved from family farms to factory operations. What neither Chipotle nor McDonald’s explains is how an industry tasked with producing nearly 21 billion pounds of pork a year could ever be anything but a factory-like operation.
As for the stalls, pork producers say it makes little difference whether the animals are kept in cages or larger pens, where the risk of injury is greater. “After an extensive review of scientific literature, the American Veterinary Medical Association determined that both individual sow housing and group housing can provide for the well-being of sows,” the National Pork Producers Council said in a statement. The council noted producers are happy to change the practice.
The industry’s ambivalent reaction suggests this isn’t so much about animal welfare as it is marketing. And, ironically, researchers at the University of Dayton recently discovered the same may be true of the McRib itself. After studying the sandwich’s history of brief appearances and limited time offers, they found “a noticeable trend that leads us to believe that McDonald’s uses the McRib to exert its dominance in the market when one of its competitors starts offering a pork-based sandwich.” McDonald’s has denied this is the case. Still hungry?