McDonald's McRib's Deep, Dark Secret: Animal CrueltyMcDonald's (MCD) reintroduction of the McRib sandwich -- boneless pork fast-food fare with an avid fan following -- has made news headlines and mouths water. However, consumers who are eagerly awaiting the limited-time offer to wolf down McRib sandwiches may not realize that McDonald's pork products contain a secret, unappetizing ingredient: pain.

The Humane Society of the United States has filed a complaint with the Securities and Exchange Commission alleging Smithfield Foods (SFD) has made false claims about its animal welfare and environmental initiatives. At issue is that federal securities law does in fact prohibit the "making of any false statement of a material fact or the omission of a material fact that would prevent a statement from being misleading."

Smithfield Foods happens to supply pork products to McDonald's, and even received McDonald's "supplier sustainability" award. The Humane Society contends that Smithfield's statements are misleading because it says it bestows "ideal" living conditions on its animals, where "every need is met." This may depend on one's own rationalized definition of what "ideal" living conditions and "needs" are for many animals that reside in the modern food chain.

The Humane Society has taken action against Smithfield's claims, since it still confines its breeding sows in gestation crates. The Humane Society points out that not only do gestation crates forbid their occupants' movements for their entire lives, but Smithfield has subjected animals to outrageously less-than-ideal treatment such as castration, tail-trimming, and tooth extraction without painkillers.

That's not exactly appetizing, McRib fans. The Humane Society picked the perfect time to raise the alarm, given the heavy promotional fanfare surrounding the McRib launch, as well as Smithfield's launch of a new site touting its corporate responsibility.

Backing away from the antiquated, cruel use of gestation crates isn't impossible. The Humane Society has acknowledged that companies like Whole Foods Market (WFM), Chipotle (CMG), Wendy's (WEN), Sonic (SONC), Harris Teeter, Quiznos, and Safeway (SWY) have made great strides in avoiding pork suppliers that indulge in the atrocious practice. (In addition, a recent study from Iowa State University showed that it's actually more economical to breed pigs in groups rather than in inhumane, confining crates.)

It'll be interesting to see how the SEC rules on the Humane Society's complaint against Smithfield. Regardless of that outcome, animal welfare advocates everywhere should be thankful the organization is raising consumer awareness about the fact that the recipe for the McRib may contain a far too heavy dose of cruelty. Think twice at the drive-thru, folks.

Motley Fool analyst Alyce Lomax owns shares of Whole Foods Market.






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