Walmart U.S. and Sam’s Club U.S. just announced new positions on animal welfare and the responsible use of antibiotics in farm animals. It recognizes the increased awareness of and desire by consumers to know more about how food is produced, but it also recognizes that changes cannot be made efficiently and economically overnight.

“Walmart is committed to selling products that sustain people and the environment,” said Kathleen McLaughlin, president of the Walmart Foundation and senior vice president of Walmart sustainability in the company’s news release on Friday, May 22. “We have listened to our customers, and are asking our suppliers to engage in improved reporting standards and transparency measures regarding the treatment of farm animals.”

Highlights Walmart’s animal welfare and antibiotics positions include the following:

Humane Treatment of Farm Animals: As part of the company’s animal welfare position statement, it said, “Walmart will not tolerate animal abuse, supports the globally recognized ‘Five Freedoms’ of animal welfare, and is committed to working with supply chain partners to implement practices consistent with the Five Freedoms.

In other words, Walmart has not given producers an ultimatum, nor has it set a timeline, but it is asking suppliers to:

  • Report and take disciplinary and corrective action in cases of animal abuse
  • Find and implement solutions to address animal welfare concerns in housing systems, painful procedures and euthanasia or slaughter
  • Promote transparency by providing progress reports to Walmart and publicly reporting against their own corporate animal welfare position on annual basis

The first suggestion appears to be directed more toward activists than producers/suppliers. The undercover videos that activist groups stage in livestock facilities are edited and modified to expose alleged abuse over several months. The Walmart position states abuse should be reported right away, with immediate disciplinary and corrective action. That is what producers do themselves, and require of their employees, because it’s counterproductive to do otherwise.

The pork industry continues to adapt production practices to meet the welfare needs of animals. It’s unlikely that Walmart knows the majority of sows will choose to remain in crates, even with the option of mingling with other sows when given the choice. Good management has shown that pen gestation systems can work well, but well-managed stall systems also protect sows from more aggressive animals. As Walmart has requested, the industry will continue to “find and implement solutions” in this area.

Regarding “painful procedures,” at the present time, no approved products are available for certain management practices, but the producers, veterinarians and animal health companies continue to work toward development and approval of products that can assist in pain management.

Responsible Use of Antibiotics

Like producers and veterinarians, Walmart believes antibiotics should be used responsibly in farm animals. It is asking suppliers to:

  • Adopt and implement the Judicious Use Principles of Antimicrobial Use from the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) including accurate record-keeping, veterinary oversight, and limiting antimicrobial treatment to animals that are ill or at risk
  • Adopt and implement Voluntary Guidance for Industry #209 from the Food and Drug Administration in their own operations and their industry producer programs, including eliminating growth promotion uses of medically important antibiotics
  • Promote transparency by providing a report on antibiotics management to Walmart and publicly report antibiotic use on an annual basis

“In October 2014, Walmart announced its commitment to a sustainable food system, outlining four key pillars to reach this goal: improving the affordability of food for both customers and the environment, increasing access to food, making healthier eating easier, and improving the safety and transparency of the food chain. By releasing its new antibiotic and animal welfare positions today, Walmart continues to build on this important commitment,” states Walmart’s news release.

Just as producers continue to improve production practices and animal welfare protocols, we hope that Walmart will recognize the need to use not only public opinion but scientific research and accurate, clear information to help explain common practices to consumers. Without a doubt, education is a key component of the process.

It’s true that consumers want to know more about how their food is grown and raised, and where it comes from, and Walmart has tremendous leverage in terms of food supply and delivery. McLaughlin says, “As the nation’s largest grocer, Walmart is committed to using our strengths to drive transparency and improvement across the supply chain.”

However, rather than dictating a timeline and requiring immediate changes based on the input of activist sources, it respects the knowledge and experience of its suppliers, and is moving forward to meet the needs of both consumers and suppliers. Visit here for more information on Walmart’s sustainable food positions.