Can Wal-Mart make farm­ing more hu­mane?

Get­ting the re­tailer’s sup­pli­ers to fol­low stricter an­i­mal-wel­fare stan­dards may re­quire a nudge.

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION - Hen the

Wgiant re­tailer Wal-Mart re­cently an­nounced that it would ask all sup­pli­ers of fresh and frozen meat, deli, dairy and egg prod­ucts to its Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club stores in the U.S. to abide by sweep­ing new guide­lines for the hu­mane treat­ment of farm an­i­mals and the re­duc­tion of an­tibi­otic use in rais­ing them, an­i­mal wel­fare groups de­clared that this would prompt noth­ing short of a sea change in an­i­mal agri­cul­ture.

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.

Wal-Mart is specif­i­cally call­ing this a po­si­tion state­ment, not a man­date with a dead­line for com­pli­ance, which raises the ques­tion of whether sup­pli­ers will fol­low through. The com­pany in­sists that col­lab­o­ra­tion, not strong-arm­ing, is its stan­dard ap­proach to ef­fect­ing change among its sup­pli­ers and that this has been suc­cess­ful time and again. As ev­i­dence, it cites its work with sup­pli­ers of laun­dry de­ter­gents nearly a decade ago to de­crease pack­ag­ing and wa­ter waste; to­day, con­cen­trated de­ter­gents dom­i­nate the aisles of Wal-Marts as well as all other stores. The com­pany also worked with light­bulb and re­frig­er­a­tor sup­pli­ers to cre­ate more en­ergy ef­fi­cient re­frig­er­ated gro­cery cases — now an in­dus­try stan­dard.

Of course, Wal-Mart is the largest gro­cery re­tailer in the na­tion, dwarf­ing its clos­est com­peti­tors. So even a re­quest to its sup­pli­ers car­ries the weight of a man­date.

The busi­ness of fac­tory farm­ing is al­ready chang­ing as food ser­vices and re­tail­ers adopt more hu­mane stan­dards. The food ser­vices com­pany Ara­mark says the 30 mil­lion eggs it will buy in the U.S. this year will come only from cage-free hens. Smith­field, the world’s large hog pro­ducer, plans to com­plete its con­ver­sion from ges­ta­tion crates to group hous­ing for preg­nant sows by the end of 2017.

But not all an­i­mal prod­uct sup­pli­ers have made the of­ten costly leap to hu­mane hous­ing. Even in states where it’s the law, busi­nesses have re­sisted. Egg pro­duc­ers un­suc­cess­fully lodged four law­suits against Cal­i­for­nia’s re­quire­ments that in-state farm­ers pro­vide roomier hous­ing for egglay­ing hens and that out-of-state sup­pli­ers fol­low the same reg­u­la­tions if they want to sell their eggs here. And an­i­mal wel­fare groups con­tend that many egg pro­duc­ers in Cal­i­for­nia are not ef­fec­tively meet­ing the new stan­dards. How many sup­pli­ers will make changes they’re not re­quired to make?

The key is­sue now is whether Wal-Mart’s goals are more than merely as­pi­ra­tional. Will the com­pany mon­i­tor sup­pli­ers to see whether an­i­mals have more space? The least it can do is make sure that egg farm­ers in Cal­i­for­nia are com­ply­ing with the law.

Wal-Mart ex­ec­u­tives have clearly seen that this is the di­rec­tion in which the in­dus­try is mov­ing and it’s what the public wants. But the com­pany may need to nudge some of its sup­pli­ers to em­brace that new vi­sion.

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