Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest food retailer, is urging its thousands of U.S. suppliers to curb the use of antibiotics in farm animals and improve treatment of them.
That means asking meat producers, eggs suppliers and others to use antibiotics only for disease prevention or treatment, not to fatten their animals, a common industry practice. Experts say Wal-Mart is the first major retailer to take a stance to limit the use of the antibiotics.
The guidelines also aim to get suppliers to stop using sow gestation crates and other housing that doesn’t give animals enough space. They’re also being asked to avoid painful procedures like de-horning or castration without proper pain management.
The push is part of an industry trend responding to shoppers who want to know more about where their food comes from and who are choosing foods they see as more healthy or natural. It comes after activists have reported animal abuse at farms supplying Wal-Mart and other major companies.
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Wal-Mart wants its suppliers to produce annual reports on antibiotic use and their progress on animal welfare and post the reports on their own websites. It’s also pressuring suppliers to report animal abuse to authorities and take disciplinary action.
Kathleen McLaughlin, senior vice president of Wal-Mart’s sustainability division, told The Associated Press in a phone interview Thursday that the retailer is not putting deadlines on suppliers and the steps aren’t mandatory.
Still, Wal-Mart’s size gives it outsized influence on its suppliers’ practices, and changes it pushes can affect products at all stores. For example, when Wal-Mart asked its suppliers to reduce packaging about a decade ago, it spurred innovations in the consumer products industry. For example, Procter & Gamble introduced tubes of Crest toothpaste that could be featured upright on shelves without boxes.
“We think what’s needed is a fresh look at how we can look at producing food. This is an industrywide change. It won’t happen overnight,” she said. “It’s about transparency.” For example, she noted that with antibiotics, “We don’t know a lot about who was using what for what reason.”
Wal-Mart’s moves won praise from various groups.
Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States, called it “game-changing progress and signals to agribusiness that the era of confining farm animals is ending.”
“Battery cages, gestation crates and veal crates — along with other long-standing practices that immobilize animals — have a short shelf life in our food system,” he said.
Dr. Gail Hansen, a former practicing veterinarian and a senior officer of Pew Charitable Trusts’ antibiotic resistance project, called Wal-Mart’s move to curb the use of antibiotics a “big deal.”
She noted the Food and Drug Administration keeps data on how much antibiotics are used in farm animals, but there’s no record of how they are being used. Concerns are growing that misuse can lead to antibiotic resistance in bacteria, making human and animal disease more difficult to treat.
“This will help us understand how antibiotics are being used in the food production,” she said.
The guidelines, which apply not only to suppliers to Wal-Mart stores but also to Sam’s Club, are part of the company’s pledge to make its food system more eco-friendly and improve food safety.
Wal-Mart said its own research showed 77 percent of its shoppers said they will increase their trust and 66 percent will increase their likelihood to shop at a retailer that improves the treatment of livestock.
Wal-Mart is facing pressure from critics like Mercy for Animals, a national animal rights group that has conducted six investigations over the past few years on farms that supply pork to Wal-Mart. It found many instances of pigs being hit and punched with metal cans, according to Ari Solomon, a spokesman for the group.
The group leaked a video of mistreatment at an Oklahoma hog farm in 2013. In that video, pigs were seen being pummeled with sheets of wood, and pregnant sows were caged in such small spaces they could barely move. After that, Tyson Foods and Wal-Mart terminated the contract with the supplier.
Solomon said that Wal-Mart has been one of the last remaining major retailers to take a stance against “gestation” crates. “This is quickly going out of vogue,” he said.
In July 2014, Wal-Mart announced it was requiring its fresh pork suppliers to have video monitoring for sow farms and would be subject to unannounced animal welfare video audits by a third party.
Wal-Mart spokesman Kevin Gardner said that requirement wasn’t in reaction to the video, but to “address the industry topic in general.”
Gary Mickelson, a spokesman at Tyson Foods Inc., based in Springdale, Arkansas, told The Associated Press that it was making “significant progress” in the areas of antibiotic use and animal well-being.
Among Tyson’s steps: It announced its plans to eliminate the use of human antibiotics in its U.S. broiler chicken flocks by the end of September 2017. It’s also encouraging hog farmers who supply to Tyson to focus on the quality and quantity of the space for sows when they remodel or build new barns, though it hasn’t set a timeframe.