Policy Pennings: Walmart & Animal Welfare

The nation’s largest retailer joins the growing list of companies seeking new production standards for the food they sell. The new standards arise from consumer demand, which is promoting changes based on both human health concerns and concern for the welfare of animals.


Kathleen McLaughlin
President of the Walmart Foundation and
senior vice president of Walmart sustainability

Kathleen McLaughlin made this comment last month when Walmart announced new positions on the humane treatment of farm animals and the responsible use of antibiotics in farm animals. Their action joins those of other retailers and restaurants like Whole Foods, McDonalds, and Chipotle in setting standards for the food they sell.

As World War II ended and the economy began to boom, consumers were looking to obtain their food as inexpensively as possible. As a result of increasing per capita income and changes in production systems, consumers were soon spending a smaller portion of their income for food purchases than they once had. The portion of the average family income dedicated to the purchase of food dropped to 10 percent or less.

A decade ago, as consumers became more health conscious, meat animal producers were responding to the changing preference of consumers for leaner pork and beef in the face of strong competition from poultry producers. Restaurants and grocery stores began to focus on marketing Angus beef and the fatty pork of the 1960s became distant memories.

While neither of these consumer concerns has disappeared from the equation, consumer preferences have continued to evolve. Today producers, processors, and retailers are finding themselves being pressured by consumers who want to know how and where their food is produced. The announcement of Walmart and its warehouse retailer, Sam’s Club, is a reflection of the power of that shift in consumer sentiment.