Walmart challenges suppliers over animal welfare and antibiotic use

By Elaine Watson contact

- Last updated on GMT

Kathleen McLaughlin: 'The customer demands a shift and the industry has to innovate and find a way to respond and still remain profitable.'
Kathleen McLaughlin: 'The customer demands a shift and the industry has to innovate and find a way to respond and still remain profitable.'

Related tags: Animal welfare, Medicine, Walmart

Walmart is asking meat and poultry suppliers to stop using antibiotics and antimicrobials for non-therapeutic purposes (eg. to promote growth and boost feed efficiency rather than exclusively for treating sick animals) amid concerns the practice may be contributing to antibiotic resistance in humans. 

Under plans announced today Walmart is asking suppliers to:  

  • Implement the American Veterinary Medical Association’s Judicious Use Principles of Antimicrobial Use ​including record-keeping, veterinary oversight, and limiting antimicrobial treatment to ill or at-risk animals.
  • Implement FDA Voluntary Guidance #209​, which includes eliminating growth promotion uses of medically important antibiotics.
  • Provide a report on antibiotics management​ to Walmart and publicly report antibiotic use annually.  
  • Report and take disciplinary and corrective action in cases of animal abuse.
  • Address animal welfare concerns in housing systems​, painful procedures and euthanasia or slaughter.
  • Provide progress reports to Walmart and publicly report​ against their own corporate animal welfare position on annual basis.

Our suppliers tell us they have been moving away from this for some time. But we don’t have hard data   

Kathleen McLaughlin, senior vice president of Walmart sustainability, told FoodNavigator-USA: “Our suppliers tell us they have been moving away from this​ [using antibiotics as growth promoters] for some time. But we don’t really know to what extent, as we don’t have hard data, so that’s one of the key drivers behind this position; we’re hoping to increase transparency and get a much better read on this for ourselves and for our customers.”

While it is not currently illegal to use antimicrobials for non-therapeutic purposes, she said, “We want go beyond the legal framework and say this is what we’d like to see.”

But how will Walmart ensure that suppliers are not continuing to use antibiotics and antimicrobials for nontherapeutic purposes under the guise of disease prevention?

She added: “We won’t be able to prove it, but we are asking them to keep records of the treatment and the outcomes​ [for example, having vet prescriptions that show that the antibiotics were prescribed for medical use].”

The industry has to innovate and find a way to respond and still remain profitable

Asked whether Walmart was expecting suppliers to cover the costs of its antibiotic and animal welfare initiatives, she said:

“The customer demands a shift and the industry has to innovate and find a way to respond and still remain profitable.”

Animal welfare​: ‘We’redeliberately not specifying the answer.’

On welfare, asked whether Walmart would be mandating specific housing conditions for certain animals as a condition of doing business, McLaughlin said. “No, we’re deliberately not specifying the answer.”

She added: “We are very clear that we will not tolerate animal abuse, and that we are going by five principles - the globally recognized  ‘Five Freedoms’​ of animal welfare - but we didn’t feel it was right to impose point solutions.

“We’re not saying you have to move to system X, just that our customers have concerns about whether animals have enough room to move and exhibit their natural behavior. But solutions have to be such that we can still meet customer demand in a way that is affordable.”

Our customers trust that when we say we’re going to do something we’ll do it

As for a timetable, she said: “We don’t want to say you have to do this by next year as it might take longer than that.”

While cynics might say that asking suppliers to treat animals better without setting mandatory requirements, or paying them more to cover the additional costs, is unlikely to drive real change, she said: “We have been very clear about what we want and pretty specific about the things we think don’t meet the five principles.

“We’re not the first retailer to take a public position along these lines but we are a large retailer and our customers trust that when we say we’re going to do something we’ll do it.”

Tyson Foods: 'Walmart’s priorities align with ours.'

A spokesman for Tyson Foods, the world's second largest processor and marketer of chicken, beef, and pork behind JBS, told FoodNavigator-USA it had made “significant progress in the areas of antibiotic use and animal well-being”​ and that Walmart’s “priorities align with ours”.

Specifically, Tyson plans to eliminate the use of human antibiotics in its US broiler chicken flocks by the end of September 2017 and has “formed working groups to talk about ways to reduce the use of human antibiotics on cattle, hog and turkey farms”, ​he added, although he did not comment on the prevalence of non-therapeutic antimicrobial use in the cattle, hog and turkey farms.

While the poultry industry has been in the spotlight in recent weeks, with comedian John Oliver​ (Last Week Tonight, HBO) suggesting that the unequal relationship between large chicken companies and poultry farmers was having a damaging effect on welfare, Tyson said it was committed to the “proper treatment of livestock and poultry​”.

The spokesman added: “Our commitment includes the Tyson Foods FarmCheck program, which involves third-party auditors who check such things as animal access to food and water, proper human-animal interaction and worker training on the farms that supply us. It also includes an external Animal Well-Being Advisory Panel and a professional staff to manage our animal well-being efforts.”

Tyson Foods has already stopped using all antibiotics in its 35 broiler hatcheries, requires a veterinary prescription for antibiotics used on broiler farms and has reduced human antibiotics used to treat broiler chickens by more than 80% since 2011, added the firm.

Smithfield: We're already compliant on company-owned farms

Top hog producer and pork processor Smithfield Foods said it was "already compliant with the newly announced policies on its company-owned farms and encourages the rest of the industry to develop programs consistent with these guidelines".

FDA plans

In December 2013 the FDA unveiled plans​ to “help phase out the use of medically important antimicrobials in food animals for food production purposes, such as to enhance growth or improve feed efficiency”.

It also called for veterinary oversight of the appropriate, therapeutic uses of such drugs to treat sick animals and for animal health companies to revise FDA-approved conditions-of-use on drug labels so references to production purposes are removed.  

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