Put aside the controversies over sub-therapeutic use of antibiotics in production. Instead, ask yourself: Is there more to be gained by fighting the activists, or getting ahead of the issue?
Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is “pressing meat, seafood, dairy and egg suppliers to reduce the use of antibiotics,” according to a story late last week from Reuters.
Only that’s not the way some of the media viewed the news.
“Walmart take stand against animal cruelty and overuse of antibiotics on farms” was the way The Verge website, owned by Vox Media, headlined it.
“WalMart openly opposes excessive use of antibiotics in livestock,” was the NYC Today headline,
Even the Los Angeles Times chimed in by openly signaled its stance on the issue, titling its story, “Wal-Mart urges suppliers to curb antibiotics, treat animals better.”
The mega-chain’s voluntary guideline, which were released May 22 — the Friday before the holiday weekend, a favorite trick of politicians who need to take a stand but don’t want to broadcast their position — would limit suppliers to using antibiotics only for disease prevention and treatment, not for promoting growth. Of course, the fact that low-level antibiotics usage also prevents disease is never mentioned. Instead, the connection of animal antibiotics to “drug-resistant superbugs, endangering human health,” as Reuters phrased it, is always front and center.
Walmart, which operates approximately 5,200 Walmart and Sam’s Club stores in the United States — who can maintain an exact count with that many stores? — is also urging its meat suppliers “not to raise livestock in gestation crates or in other conditions considered inhumane,” requesting that suppliers publicly disclose their antibiotics usage and animal handling standards on an annual basis.
“As the nation’s largest grocer, Walmart is committed to using our strengths to drive transparency and improvement across the supply chain,” Kathleen McLaughlin, senior vice president of Walmart sustainability, said in a statement.
Walmart accounts for nearly 25 percent of the total U.S. grocery market, so its “request” will affect everyone in the entire processing and distribution chain.
Of course, the company’s message is phrased in the form of a request, not a demand, which didn’t please some in the activist community.
“Walmart wants to present its announcement as a step forward on responsible antibiotics use,” the National Resources Defense Council wrote in response to the news release titled, “Walmart’s antibiotic use announcement: Less than meets the eye.” “Unfortunately, the steps Walmart put forward won’t deliver on responsible use of antibiotics.”
Others activists noted that McDonald’s, Chik-fil-A, Chipotle and even Perdue and Tyson have all recently committed to no longer sourcing from growers using antibiotics with important human clinical value. Costco, one of Wal-Mart’s biggest rivals, also announced that the company was working with its suppliers to phase out sourcing from suppliers of livestock and poultry raised with antibiotics used to combat human infections.
Even the Food and Drug Administration in 2013 released guidelines for pharmaceutical suppliers and agricultural and food companies calling for a voluntary phase-out of antibiotics as growth promoters in livestock.
The tide is definitely turning.
Of course, the largest retail and foodservice operators have the leverage to demand all sorts of compliance measures from its suppliers. When they do, the new policy rolled out at a splashy mediafest touting what outstanding corporate citizens they are. And it’s usually painless for the people making the announcement. Other companies have to jump through the hoops, not Walmart or McDonald’s.
That’s a function of the size and scale of these consumer-facing mega-firms.
But here’s my question: Even though announcements such as Walmart’s antibiotic statement usually arrive with enough wiggle room to drive a delivery truck through, has the time come for the production side of the industry to voluntarily phase out growth promotants? Would it be to everyone’s benefit to neutralize the traction anti-industry types continually generate from flogging the antibiotics issue?
In its statement, Walmart noted that “an internal study” showed that 77 percent of its customers would increase their trust in a retailer opposed to the overuse of antibiotics, and 66 percent would be more likely to shop at a store when they know the company is working to ensure humane treatment of livestock.
Those results appear to be based on motherhood and apple pie questions. The 23 percent to 34 percent who answered “No” to a question asking if it’s a good thing for producers to treat animals humanely are either fully brain dead, clueless as to what antibiotics actually are or so desensitized to the fundamentals of animal husbandry they were probably were surprised to find out that meat doesn’t actually come from that big shiny refrigerated case at their local Walmart store.
Nevertheless, it’s getting real old watching the attack dogs at HSUS and other organizations opposed to meat production start foaming at the mouth every time a company is “forced” to demand new standards from its suppliers, ones that conveniently align with the activists’ positioning.
I believe all sectors and all participants in animal agriculture need to have an honest conversation about getting ahead of the curve on antibiotics use.
The time to convince consumers that the industry is operating proactively, rather than staying stuck in full reactionary mode, is growing awfully short.
Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator