How Walmart and Costco Can Shift the Food Industry on Animal Welfare

Cage-Free HensBy Kara A. Mergl

Both Walmart and Costco have been in the news this summer for their positions on animal welfare. While Walmart’s recently released position on animal welfare has been heralded as the greatest commitment to animal protection yet by any single food business, Costco is just another in a long string of companies to come under the microscope, after undercover footage of one of its egg suppliers, Hillandale Farms, treating hens cruelly surfaced last month.

The public pressure on Costco since then has only increased. Ryan Gosling penned a much-publicized open letter urging Costco to source only cage-free eggs, and the Humane Society filed a complaint with the FDA last week aimed at Costco and Hillandale Farms over their treatment of hens.

Robust animal welfare policies are critical for any major food business, as Walmart and Costco surely know. Following in the footsteps of businesses like Nestlé, Walmart announced its commitment to “continuous improvement to the welfare of farm animals in [its] supply chain,” and even acknowledged the role of both ethics and science in its decision-making process.  Costco has a similar policy, described on its website.

At the base of each policy is a statement of support for the Five Freedoms. The Five Freedoms assert that animals in the supply chain should be free to express their normal behaviors and free from hunger and thirst, discomfort, pain and suffering, and fear. Supporting the Five Freedoms is the first step toward animal welfare improvements. A real commitment to animal protection, however, needs to extend beyond words on a website.

Savvy shoppers know the difference between big statements and actual improvements on the ground.  Merely having an animal welfare policy, even one based on the Five Freedoms, is not enough.  Sixty-seven percent of shoppers already consider animal welfare in their food purchasing, with 43 percent more doing so more today than 5 years ago, according to a 2014 survey conducted by EL Insights among a nationally represented panel of 1,244 consumers.

Over a 5-year period, dollar market shares rose on humanely-labeled products up to 9 percent from nearly zero just a few years before. One major mayonnaise brand experienced a 13 percent market share increase and a 46 percent sales increase following its announced commitment to using only cage-free eggs.  It only makes sense that businesses are now jumping on the opportunity to tell their customers where they stand on animal welfare issues.  But this initial announcement is only the first step needed.

To set meaningful change in motion, businesses should outline how they actually define animal welfare.  Citing the Five Freedoms as a framework for welfare standards in a supply chain, while still using minimal industry standards for animal care and confinement, is contradictory.

Businesses must back up such references with specifics regarding species-related welfare concerns (such as the dehorning of cows or rapid growth rates of chickens) and supply chain practices the company intends to address over time.  Walmart has made steps toward this level of detail by asking its suppliers to identify problems and make changes in three key areas: confined housing, painful procedures and pain during slaughter. Walmart does not, however, outline what solutions it will accept as improvements.

When it comes to confinement, is a small, barren battery cage with five hens instead of 10 acceptable, or should egg suppliers be advancing toward cage-free systems?  Walmart hasn’t made these vital distinctions.

In a separate document, Walmart does outline its policy on animal welfare in its pork supply.  Here it lists requirements for its suppliers, including on-farm videos in barns, unannounced welfare audits and a mandatory certification program.  The difference between the specificity in Walmart’s overall animal welfare position and its policy on welfare in its pork supply is stark.  But even with more details, without specialized knowledge of the company’s required certification program, consumers are left to guess exactly how Walmart thinks pigs should be treated.

Companies should also streamline multiple policies into one manageable portfolio, with clear timelines for reporting progress.  Similar to Walmart, Costco has a separate commitment for pork in its supply chain. However, neither company references its commitment to pig welfare as part of its overall policy.  If policies are literally not on the same page, how do consumers understand business priorities and know where to look for progress updates?

This part is crucial: Progress needs to be publicly disclosed.  In Costco’s case, its commitment to phase out the use of gestation crates for pigs was initially communicated privately to its suppliers and only later shared with the public after animal advocates promoted the news secondhand. There is no accountability for a commitment made behind closed doors.  In the three years since Costco sent a letter to its suppliers asking them to eliminate gestation crates in their supply chains, the company has been silent on the issue.  No progress has been reported, leaving consumers to wonder just how serious this commitment was.

Businesses have the opportunity to grow their consumer appeal by improving animal protection.  But any competitive advantage will only come to businesses that not only have an animal welfare policy but actually document their progress towards change. Communicating continuous improvements to consumers is critical.

While Walmart is taking the first steps on its animal welfare journey, just three years after Costco, the company finds itself at the center of an undercover investigation involving the treatment of animals in its supply chain. Both Walmart and Costco can learn from this moment and move forward with stronger welfare portfolios to become real champions for animals.  Other food businesses should be paying attention, too.

Photo Credit: World Animal Protection/i.c.productions

Kara A. Mergl is U.S Manager of Corporate Engagement at World Animal Protection. She collaborates with businesses and consumers to increase the availability of humane and sustainable food. Kara holds an MS in Social Policy and a Master of Social Work from the University of Pennsylvania.

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