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Editorial: Illinois, like McDonald’s, should ban cruel cage

FILE - In this Nov. 28 2010 file phoprovided by The Humane Society United States female breeding pigs are gestaticrates

FILE - In this Nov. 28, 2010 file photo provided by The Humane Society of the United States, female breeding pigs are in gestation crates at a Virginia factory farm owned by a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods in Waverly, Va. McDonald's Corp. said Monday, Feb. 13, 2012, it will require its U.S. pork suppliers to provide plans by May to phase out the use of stalls that confine pregnant sows. Smithfield Foods had already announced plans to phase out the stalls. (AP Photo/The Humane Society of the United States, File)

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Updated: March 16, 2012 8:11AM

Now let’s ban those torture pens for pigs in Illinois.

This is not a view that will please hog farmers, who are, after all, just trying to make a living. They will bristle at our very language, daring to call gestational crates — their words — torture pens — our words.

But progress on the animal welfare front, from banning puppy mills to raising farm animals more humanely, will always be opposed by those who would bear the most direct costs and inconveniences of change. Progress comes about only when there is an evolution in thinking within the culture.

And there has been an evolution. Mainstream American views on animal welfare issues, as a direct result of the grass-roots agitation and sophisticated messaging of groups like the Humane Society and PETA, have come a long way.

On Monday, McDonald’s announced it will require its U.S. pork suppliers to provide plans to phase out gestational crates. These are small individual pens, about 2 feet by 7 feet, in which sows are kept for almost their entire lives, which average three years. The pigs don’t have enough room to turn around, which we’d say sounds like torture.

McDonald’s decision will shake the entire pork industry, but it’s important to stress that the fast food giant is following the crowd, not leading the charge.

Animal welfare groups have been campaigning against gestational crates for years, their most powerful emotional weapon being video of the pigs in the crates, taken undercover on factory farms and posted on the Internet. Almost a decade ago, Florida banned the crates. Seven other states have followed suit. Two months ago, Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer, repeated a pledge to phase out the crates by 2017. And the week before that, Hormel announced that it would do the same.

All this progress, Humane Society President Wayne Pacelle says, flows from the most basic grassroots organizing and agitating, even as he and others also have worked the corporate boardrooms.

“Countless animal advocates have toiled to shine a bright light on the routine abuse that crated pigs are forced to endure,” Pacelle wrote on his blog Tuesday. “That struggle has yielded significant results for animals and made today’s progress possible.”

“We are a nation of animal lovers and it was just a matter of getting that information [about the crates] out to people,” Lindsay Rajt, a PETA spokesman, told the Sun-Times. “People are beginning to recognize that animal welfare and animal rights are real issues, real ethical issues, and you have to take a position.”

In Illinois, the next humane step would be a state ban on gestational cages. Pigs confined so tightly develop health problems that require antibiotics, raising human health concerns.

More than that, the cages are simply cruel.

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