Two weeks after filing a complaint with the SEC, The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) took another step in a legal battle with Smithfield Foods, one of McDonald's major pork suppliers for products like the McRib.
The HSUS said Tuesday in a release that it had filed a legal notice with Smithfield, saying it planned to inspect company records per its right as a shareholder in Smithfield Foods.
The issue at hand is Smithfield's use of gestation crates to confine its pigs. Smithfield said in 2007 that it would phase out use of gestation crates over a 10-year period, but in 2009 the company backed off from that timeline.
Smithfield said it has already eliminated the practice at 30 percent of its facilities. The HSUS wants to see, specifically, how Smithfield gets those numbers.
Their numbers have jumped quickly, said Jonathan Lovvorn, senior vice president and chief counsel for animal protection litigation, in a phone interview. So quickly that our concern is, rather than engaging in conversion, they're citing the figure for their company-owned operations -- selling off operations to other companies, rather than converting their own.
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Smithfield dismissed The Humane Society's filing in a statement emailed to the IBTimes.
In the statement, Smithfield said it was the first pork supplier in an industry of 60,000 to publicly commit to converting sow housing from gestation crates to group pens. It also said the conversion is ongoing, and re-emphasized that 30 percent of its facilities have already been converted.
There is no legal basis for this demand made by HSUS to Smithfield, the statement read. We believe this is yet another unsubstantiated attempt by this organization to support its cause.
Smithfield did not specify whether it would allow The HSUS to inspect company records.
McDonald's did not respond to a request for comment. However, when The HSUS filed its original complaint with the SEC, McDonald's affirmed its commitment to Smithfield and said it holds its suppliers accountable for compliance with its own principles and standards of humane treatment of animals.
McDonald's has been a long-time supporter of alternatives to gestation stalls, and we will continue to support the efforts of Smithfield Foods and all of our suppliers to phase them out, Susan Forsell, vice president of quality systems at McDonald's USA, told the IBTimes in a statement then.
Smithfield Foods was the first major pork producer that committed to phasing out gestation stalls, and we support the company's transparency and progress toward this goal.
Lovvorn explained The HSUS' was specifically concerned with the language Smithfield employs in most of its statements and on its Web site. They state that 30 percent of our company-owned farms will complete the conversion by the end of the year.
Company-owned farms are the words that trouble The HSUS. Lovvorn said Smithfield could manipulate its numbers by selling off operations of farms to other companies or contractors.
Are they actually investing in conversion? Lovvorn said. Or are they investing in creative accounting?
Lovvorn said The HSUS hasn't heard any update on the status of its SEC complaint but noted that this was normal, as the SEC typically takes a long period of time to complete these kinds of investigations.
As for Smithfield, Lovvorn said that if the company doesn't comply with The HSUS' request, it will consider taking legal action.
We were joking in the office that this is their time to put up or shut up, Lovvorn said. They've been evasive, which makes us concerned. The smart thing to do is to release the documents that prove they are making good on their commitment.