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Walmart Chooses Words Carefully on Animal Welfare

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A worker gathers eggs at huge chicken house in Los Angeles.

The press release about Walmart’s new animal welfare and antibiotic positions landed in my inbox last week. I care a lot about those things, so I clicked through: “As part of its animal welfare position statement, 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.”

Given that conventionally-raised livestock has precious little in the way of freedoms, I thought five would be a big improvement, and these particular five are important. They’re the guidelines for the ethical treatment of animals, developed by the UK’s Farm Animal Welfare Committee:

  • Freedom from hunger and thirst, by ready access to water and a diet to maintain health and vigour.
  • Freedom from discomfort, by providing an appropriate environment.
  • Freedom from pain, injury and disease, by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment.
  • Freedom to express normal behaviour, by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and appropriate company of the animal’s own kind.
  • Freedom from fear and distress, by ensuring conditions and treatment, which avoid mental suffering.

My husband and I raise a lot of our own animals, and those are certainly our priorities. I figured that Walmart’s sharing them was good news, so I checked in with the company to see how their commitment to those freedoms would translate to changes in the way their suppliers raise animals. Would pigs get litter to root in? Would chicken houses be less crowded?

Those questions, apparently, aren’t on the agenda. Kevin Gardner, Walmart’s senior director of global responsibility communications, tells me: “We’re asking Walmart U.S. and Sam’s Club U.S. … suppliers to find and implement solutions to address animal welfare concerns that include housing systems that lack sufficient space like sow gestation crates, hen battery cages and veal crates.”

There are no deadlines by which the suppliers have to find solutions and there is no requirement that those solutions be found. No other specific issues are addressed. Walmart will be “tracking” and “reviewing” and striving for “continuous improvement,” Gardner told me.

So there are no specific animal welfare standards. There are no deadlines. And there is no requirement that suppliers do anything at all.

Still, this is the retailer that gets one in four of our grocery dollars, and the fact that they’re paying attention to animal welfare is important.

Marion Garcia, chief veterinary officer of the American Humane Association, applauds it. “I’m very impressed that they’ve taken a position,” she says. “Walmart, by its sheer size, is able to exert pressure on its suppliers.” And she believes that, even without deadlines and specifics, that pressure will be exerted. “Instead of holding a hammer, they’re holding a carrot.”

Josh Balk, senior food policy director for the Humane Society of the United States, takes a similar view. He points out that, although the issue of livestock welfare has seen “a lot of positive momentum, Walmart had not yet taken a stand. With one swift stroke of policy, they made their view clear. They believe the industry should move away from these practices. If you’re a supplier, you want to get into a company that has 25 percent of the market.”

Balk would like to see a timeline, and he’d like to see the company address issues beyond cages and crates, which he calls “the worst practices,” but he’s optimistic about the potential for this announcement to change things.

To try and figure out whether this announcement would do that, would change things, I asked Dave Warner, director of communications for the National Pork Producers Council. “Not any time soon,” he said. He explained that 85 percent of the country’s sows are still put in gestation crates, and although some new construction has group pens (an alternative to the crates), nothing’s changing in existing barns.  “There’s no retrofitting going on, and this announcement won’t change that. Nobody’s willing to pay for that.”

Garcia isn’t ready to give up. “That may be their initial reaction, but it’s a fresh announcement, let’s give it a little time,” she says. “Consumers care about welfare, retailers are paying attention, and I think producers will pay attention as well.”

Garcia’s point is critical. The extent to which Walmart changes the way animals are treated will inevitably come down to money—and whether those consumers who care are willing to pay more of it. When I asked Gardner if the planned changes would increase prices, he said, “Walmart has many past examples of collaborating with our suppliers to drive innovation without increasing prices for customers.’  That’s not a ‘no,’ but it’s sure not a ‘yes.’

If Walmart can’t raise prices, they’re not going to be able to pay farmers more. If they can’t pay farmers more, there’s not going to be a lot of wiggle room to improve animal welfare. It’s hard to see how, in this system, the company’s commitment to the Five Freedoms can be realized.

It’s easy to point fingers at big companies, and blame them for the excesses of industrialized agriculture.  Walmart has the power to change the way animals are raised, and it’s frustrating to those who care about welfare that they haven’t yet, and that this new step seems limited. But it’s consumers, us with the wallets, who have the power to change Walmart.  The Five Freedoms cost, and it’s the people doing the eating who have to pay. If those freedoms are important, we all have to ante up.