Editor's Note: Jeff Mackey is a staff writer for the PETA Foundation. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) works to promote animal rights and mitigate cruelty toward animals.
By Jeff Mackey - Special to CNN
The announcement by fast-food giant McDonald's that it will require its U.S. pork suppliers to eliminate the use of gestation crates - 2-foot-wide cages designed to virtually immobilize pigs for the entirety of their pregnancies - is but one recent sign of the growing worldwide recognition that farmed animals are not mere machines for food production but living, feeling beings with concerns worthy of our consideration.
Because McDonald's is a leading restaurant chain, its decision to buy only from producers that don't use gestation crates is notable, but the company is in some ways behind the curve on this issue. The European Union (EU) has already banned the use of the crates, as have several U.S. states, and other notable companies, including Hormel, Smithfield Foods, and Maple Leaf Farms (the largest pork producer in Canada), had already begun the process of phasing them out.
These developments show a modicum of respect for these animals who form complex social networks and are smarter than dogs - pigs even do better at video games than some primates. While pigs on today's industrialized farms must still endure crowded, stressful conditions throughout their lives, by eliminating one of the most obviously inhumane practices to which they have been subjected, a ban on gestation crates represents an important step toward more fully addressing their interests.
Another bright and social animal, the chicken, has also been relegated to a cage on factory farms, but for chickens, it's essentially a life sentence - though that, too, has begun to change. Egg farms typically confine five hens to a space about the size of a file drawer, where they are unable to lift even a single wing. Crammed so closely together, these normally clean animals are forced to urinate and defecate on one another.
At the beginning of 2012, however, new European Union regulations went into effect banning the traditional battery cage. Now, European hens must be given more room, along with nests, perches to sit on, unrestricted access to a feed trough that measures at least 12 centimeters per bird, and litter so that the birds can engage in intrinsic behaviors such as pecking and scratching.
The deficiencies of battery cages aren't just the opinion of animal rights advocates. As early as 1996, the EU's Scientific Veterinary Committee criticized their use, stating in a report that "current battery cage systems provide a barren environment for the birds. ... It is clear that because of its small size and its barrenness, the battery cage as used at present has inherent severe disadvantages for the welfare of hens."
As with gestation crates, the EU ban on battery cages won't save hens from the misery of never being able to express their natural desires to bask in the sun, dust bathe, roost in trees, build nests, and raise their young. Yet it also marks a turning point in the awareness of farmed animals as independent beings.
Another important advance in the welfare of animals raised for food is the number of recent bans on force-feeding birds to produce foie gras. In traditional foie gras (literally "fatty liver") production, workers ram pipes down the throats of male ducks or geese several times a day and pump as much as 4 pounds of grain and fat into their stomachs, causing their livers to expand to up to 10 times their normal size. Many birds have difficulty standing because of their engorged livers, and they may tear out their own feathers or even cannibalize one another because of the stress.
Unease over the nature of foie gras production caused California to pass a law banning its sale and production that will go into effect this year. Force-feeding has also been outlawed in Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Israel, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, and the U.K.
One more area of concern addressed by recent legislation is veal production. Conventionally, male calves - of no use in milk production - have been forced to spend their short lives in individual crates designed to prohibit exercise and normal muscle growth in order to produce tender "gourmet" veal. The calves are fed a low-iron milk substitute so that they will become anemic and their flesh will remain pale, leaving them susceptible to a wide range of diseases, including chronic pneumonia and diarrhea.
Veal crates have been prohibited in Britain since 1990 and in the EU since 2007. Several U.S. states have passed veal crate bans, and even the board of the American Veal Association adopted a resolution recommending that all veal producers in the United States convert to group housing by 2017. EU regulations also require a minimum iron content for the calves' food.
While the increased interest in the well-being of farmed animals is welcome - and while any measure to reduce their suffering is to be applauded - as long as we continue to use animals for food, they will continue to suffer. But we don't have to wait for governments, organizations, and corporations to catch up. No matter who we are or where we live, we can each "opt out" of supporting cruelty by choosing healthy and humane plant-based foods. When enough of us make that choice, the world will truly be a kinder place for all.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of Jeff Mackey.