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.
“Our customers want to know more about how their food is grown and raised, and where it comes from,”
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.
Some of that shift is reflected in consumer concern over the impact of meat animal production process that could affect their own health. The prime example of that is growing concern over the use of antibiotics in meat animal production. They are concerned that the widespread use of antibiotics by the livestock industry could lead to an increase in antibiotic resistant microbes that could have a negative impact on human health. There is also concern that some antibiotics could become ineffective in the treatment of human illnesses.
As part of its newly announced position, Walmart is asking suppliers to:
While Walmart is currently “asking,” not “requiring,” suppliers to adhere to these new positions, it is clear that producers will need to begin making changes in their animal husbandry practices. And processors will have to institute transparent verification processes so that consumers can be assured that their concerns are being met.
But shifting consumer concerns go beyond concern for their own well-being, they are also showing increasing concern over animal welfare issues. Response to this shift is reflected in Walmart’s concern that “animals should be treated humanely throughout their lives.” As a result the company says it will not tolerate animal abuse and is asking its suppliers to “report and take disciplinary and corrective action in cases of animal abuse.”
In both its antibiotic policies and humane treatment of animal policies, Walmart is promoting transparency by asking suppliers to provide progress reports to the company and providing public reports of compliance with these policies. Not so long ago, some were promoting ag-gag laws to prevent clandestine video-recording of instances of animal abuse. Today suppliers are being asked to publicly report progress in eliminating instances of animal abuse and improving animal welfare.
Daryll E. Ray holds the Blasingame Chair of Excellence in Agricultural Policy, Institute of Agriculture, University of Tennessee, and is the Director of UT’s Agricultural Policy Analysis Center (APAC). Harwood D. Schaffer is a Research Assistant Professor at APAC.