Wal-Mart is asking its suppliers of meat, deli, dairy, and egg products to honor a new set of guidelines calling for the humane treatment of livestock and a reduction in the use of antibiotics. Supporters say this could revolutionize animal agriculture — but will Wal-Mart’s suppliers follow through?
The retail giant has done stuff like this in the past. A decade ago it asked its suppliers to develop laundry detergents that require less packaging and are less wasteful — and they did. Then the firm asked its lightbulb and fridge suppliers to develop more energy efficient grocery cases — and again, they did. Clearly, when you’re as big as Wal-Mart, you can significantly influence the way certain things are done.
Now, as reported in the LA Times, Wal-Mart wants its suppliers to start treating its farm animals more humanely. From the Times:
Indeed, Wal-Mart has taken a significant and sophisticated position on farm animal welfare, calling for suppliers to report and take disciplinary action in cases of animal abuse and to replace cramped housing units that don’t let animals move around or socialize. The latter change would eliminate battery cages for hens, gestation crates for pregnant sows and veal calf crates. California is one of a handful of states that outlaws such housing, but Wal-Mart’s guidelines could push more suppliers across the country to adopt the new standards.
Suppliers are also being asked to stop procedures such as tail docking, de-horning and castration without pain management and to make sure animals are rendered insensible to pain before slaughter. The guidelines ask suppliers to provide animal welfare reports to Wal-Mart and to the public.
A Wal-Mart spokesman said its new position is a response to company research that found 77% of Wal-Mart shoppers would increase their trust in a retailer that practiced humane treatment of livestock, and 66% would be more likely to shop at such a retailer.
So it’s obvious that Wal-Mart is doing this to increase its bottom line. The fact that animals might endure less suffering is purely secondary. And indeed, if Wal-Mart truly cared about the welfare of farm animals, maybe the company would invest in the development of lab-grown meat and other techniques to improve conditions long-term.
Because Wal-Mart’s guidelines are voluntary, it’s an open question as to whether or not its suppliers will feel compelled to drastically change their business practices. The changes that Wal-Mart is asking for are not subtle. At the same time, Wal-Mart is so dominant in retail that its suppliers may have no choice but to abide, lest they’re replaced by competitors willing to make the changes.
Read the entire article at the LA Times.