Wal-Mart hailed for leadership on animal welfare

Retailing giant Wal-Mart ($WMT) drew praise from animal welfare activists Friday when it announced voluntary guidelines for its meat and egg suppliers that would reduce the use of antibiotics on farms and improve conditions for livestock and poultry.

Wal-Mart said it has asked its suppliers to use antibiotics only for disease prevention and treatment--not for fattening up animals--and to eliminate constrained housing such as pig gestation crates, according to the Associated Press. Wal-Mart is also asking farmers not to perform painful procedures such as de-horning without painkillers.

Wal-Mart's Kathleen McLaughlin

Furthermore, said Kathleen McLaughlin, senior vice president of Wal-Mart's sustainability division, Wal-Mart has requested that its meat and egg producers report antibiotic use annually and post the data online. The retailer has also asked them to report incidents of animal abuse and take disciplinary actions against perpetrators.

The moves were made partly in response to shopper demands, Wal-Mart told the AP. According to the retailer's research, 77% of customers reported they would be more likely to trust a retailer that improves its treatment of farm animals and 66% would be more likely to shop there.

But Wal-Mart is likely responding to industry trends, as well. McDonald's ($MCD), for example, has already vowed to eliminate gestation crates. And in March, just as the FDA was implementing tough new rules on antibiotics use in food production, the fast-food giant said it would eliminate all chicken raised with antibiotics that are also used in human health from its menus. Not all food producers are on board--chicken producer Sanderson Farms expressed doubts about the antibiotics crackdown just days before Wal-Mart's announcement, for example--but that didn't seem to sway the retailer.

Wal-Mart's new guidelines will likely have a major impact on meat and egg production despite any dissent, simply by virtue of the retailer's size: It accounts for 25% of America's food industry. Nathan Runkle, president of the advocacy group Mercy for Animals, called the retailer's new rules "historic and landmark."

Still, Runkle wants Wal-Mart to go a step further in its support of animal welfare, he told the AP. "We urge Wal-Mart to add greater teeth to this announcement by making the new guidelines a requirement rather than a mere recommendation and to set aggressive deadlines."

- here's the AP story