What Nebraskans might do some day in endorsing animal welfare standards at the ballot box matters a lot less than what McDonald's did Monday, according to a University of Nebraska-Lincoln agricultural law specialist.
In calling for phasing out gestation crates for pregnant hogs, the world's largest restaurant chain will put much more pressure on pork producers than any state ever could, David Aiken said.
"What the supply chain says to meat producers will always trump that," Aiken said.
Gestation crates typically are used to provide individual care and management to sows from the time they get pregnant until they move to farrowing crates to give birth to their litters.
By giving each animal its own pre-birthing space, including its own eating space, pork producers cut down on the potential for fights and injuries to both the animals and their handlers.
But the Humane Society and McDonald's object to a situation in which females of breeding age spend much of their lives in spaces so small they can't turn around or mingle with other pigs.
In a prepared statement, McDonald's was firm about its position Monday, although it was flexible about an implementation timetable.
"McDonald's believes gestation stalls are not a sustainable production system for the future," the statement said. "There are alternatives that we believe are better for pregnant sows."
The company said it was acting with the support of the Humane Society of the United States.
"In May, after receiving our suppliers' plans, we'll share results from the assessment and our next steps."
Duane Reese, a swine specialist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who teaches an animal welfare class, said gestation crates became an increasingly popular part of the management mix in the 1970s.
There are no solid statistics on how much they're used in 2012 in Nebraska, which is sixth in pork production nationally.
"But I can tell you, without question," Reese said, "that most of the sows, during gestation, are housed in gestation crates."
Scientific studies have yet to suggest that crate systems produce results superior or inferior, across the board, to results on farms that don't use them.
"I think one of the things to never forget here is that sows housed in gestation stalls are very productive," Reese said. "They have a lot of piglets in each litter, and they have a lot of litters in their lifetime."
That doesn't satisfy critics.
"What some people are wondering about is: Is it right to house a sow in a gestation stall? Is it right to do that? And science can't answer that question," Reese said. "That's an ethical question. That's a value-based question."
Larry Sitzman, executive director of the Nebraska Pork Producers, called the McDonald's announcement "another example of activist groups putting pressure on utilizers of our product."
Sitzman, no friend of the Humane Society of the United States, said its leadership was using "lots of millions" of donated dollars to influence markets.
"You and I both know they're not using it for pets or to donate it to animal shelters. They're using it for issues like this … to force their will on companies."
Will Nebraska pork producers feel bound by the McDonald's stance?
"That will be up to their individual freedom of the decision-making process," Sitzman said, "but I wouldn't think so."
McDonald's spokeswoman Lisa McComb said the important thing for its suppliers was not a date for cooperating.
"We are saying that our expectation is that they have a plan and that we will be discussing a plan," she said.
McComb said the company was responding to customers who buy primarily bacon, Canadian bacon and pork sausage from its breakfast menu.
"There's much more interest that we know of that consumers want to know how we're sourcing our food."
However, on the production side, she said, "we're not going to be sweepingly prescriptive in anything until we know where we are and what folks are dealing with."
The McDonald's move comes on top of an agreement last year between the Humane Society and the United Egg Producers, organizational voice for owners of 95 percent of the nation's laying hens, to give the hens more space for egg production.
UNL's Aiken said the McDonald's announcement was more of the same.
"As more and more of the people in the supply chain -- the restaurants and the grocery stores and so forth -- say this is what they want, that's where the industry has to go."