The news that McDonald’s is promising to force its pork suppliers to phase out the use of gestation stalls—and the manner in which the media are covering the news—speaks to a pair of permanent alterations in the landscape of animal agriculture.

First, the way that news was slanted and the sources referenced are an acknowledgement that the activist-critics have had an impact on the way the discussion-debate-dialogue about animal welfare is now discussed.

Under the guise of exploring the issue, Yahoo News, for example, quoted food columnist and well-known vegetarian proponent Mark Bittman of the New York Times as stating that “90% of sows spend their pregnancies in tiny metal stalls that hinder a sow from turning around or moving but most of their lives.”

Backing up Bittman was Paul Shapiro, the Humane Society of the United States spokesman notorious for his unabashed condemnation of virtually every aspect of commercial livestock production, who said that “pigs in pens are more susceptible to diseases and infections, and suffer psychologically, too.”

That these two “authorities” are the go-to guys on animal welfare that a major media channel engages on the subject underscores that the industry begins virtually every round of the fight over how food animals are raised on the defensive.

Second, the traction that industry critics maintain on animal welfare means that industry must reckon with a new reality demanding triage on the issues targeted by members of the activist community.

That won’t come as welcome news to most people involved in meat and poultry production. For much of the last couple decades, various segments of both the live side and the packing and processing side of the industry have remained in reactive mode, addressing each new activist campaign on an ad hoc basis. The result has been a decidedly mixed bag of partial victories and wholesale defeats at the ballot box and in the court of public opinion.

The strategic approach

Though painful, a better approach would be to prioritize the key issues that are targets for the opponents of livestock production and analyze each one’s importance by asking a simple question: How hard would it be to change the system and neutralize the critics? With that analysis, here is my list—in descending order of priority—of changes that producers could and should explore.

  1. Veal crates. Elimination of these confinement stalls is a no-brainer, and phasing out of that method is quickly becoming universal across the industry. Had it been done decades ago, it might have helped our industry distance itself from the activists’ line of attack and avoided a protracted fight that did little besides give both dairy and veal producers a black eye.
  2. Gestation stalls. Although alternatives are more labor-intensive and production efficiencies are (allegedly) affected, the imagery of a pregnant sow appearing to be crammed into a tight space behind iron bars carries a negative impact that far outweighs any production gains. How many more blog screeds and street protests and video clips showing exactly such a scenario have to be circulated before pork producers take the proactive step to switch to a group housing system? Farrowing crates can be easily defended; gestation stalls not so much.
  3. Battery cages. Again, the images activists can create make even the best-run and most modern layer hen housing look like the worst prison scenes from a straight-to-DVD movie. Yes, switching to alternative systems or even enriched cages will require significant investment on the part of egg producers. Yes, such a change will further consolidate an industry critics already claim is too top-heavy. And yes, it will definitely raise the price of eggs. Guess what? It’s still worth it to quell the critics demanding such a change.
  4. Dairy barns. The transformation of milk production from a largely small-scale, relatively low-tech business to far more intensive production methods relying on indoor confinement have left milk producers open to attack. Witness the industry advertising that seeks to counter the activist campaigns: It all features sunny skies, open pastures and happily grazing cows. What’s needed is not necessarily a return to 1950s-style dairy production—a small herd of milkers the farmer’s kids drive into the barn twice a day—but a system that at least allows access to the outdoors. That change alone, though challenging, would negate virtually all of the activist artillery.
  5. Hormones and antibiotics. Few issues affecting production agriculture can be solved with a significant dose of science. This, however, is one of them. People regularly use and require antibiotics to combat infections. Producers must emphasize the parallel application of veterinary antibiotics. And the use of hormones—or growth promotants—needs to be framed as the addition of microscopic amounts of natural substances that are biologically analogous to a chef adding flavorings to a culinary creation. Are they absolutely necessary? No. Do they make a positive difference without any real downside? Absolutely.
  6. Genetics. With breeding strategies, reproductive technologies and even cloning, the parallels with other species (such as the various—and newly developed—breeds of dogs) and human reproductive science can be explained as a way to improving livestock morbidity, mortality and well-being. We celebrate the use of fertility treatments and in vitro techniques for couples who can’t conceive. Why should we be scared of applying similar science to the profession of animal husbandry?
  7. Feedlots. Of all the targets activists love to shoot at, the use of feedlots is the easiest to defend. On the basis of comparative carbon footprints, grain-finishing of cattle is as good if not better than grassfed production. On the question of confinement, it’s a non-issue. And the imagery of cattle chowing down at a feed bunk just doesn’t carry the same queasiness quotient as chickens or sows appearing to be jammed into spaces too small for their frames.

Industry ought to start at the top of list, and work its way down, either making the changes critics are demanding (items 1 through 3), addressing the issues more proactively (items 4 through 6) or finding a more effective way to promote the bona fide efficiencies involved and their positive impact on the environment (item 7).

That would be much bigger—and better—news than yet another arrow fired at yet another sore spot for the nation’s producers.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.