One Humanely-raised Happy Meal, Please

Shifting Practices of Large Corporations Seek to Imitate Long Standing Values of Local Suppliers

With a move that chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States has called “game-changing progress,” Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is asking farmers of beef, chicken, pork and other animals to limit their use of antibiotics and adhere to other higher standards of animal welfare, including the provision of sufficient space for animals to express “normal behaviors” and “freedom from discomfort.”

Following similar recent declarations of popular food retailers including McDonald’s Corp., Tyson Foods Inc., Costco and Chipotle, shifting consumer habits that reflect a growing concern for foods perceived to be more wholesome, humane and environmentally-friendly is prompting the country’s largest grocer to heed to resulting demand, with the store’s grocery sales accounting for over half of the $288 billion in 2014 U.S. sales.

While it is somewhat worrisome that it appears to be in the hands of large corporations to reactively spearhead such efforts or face declining profits, rather than proactive action on the part of national and local governments to put in place sound policies for the sake of public health, it speaks to the profound effect that shifting societal values and ensuing public demand can have on even the most powerful of global corporations.

Rather than blindly applauding such corporations for their long overdue announcements of policy changes, consumers may also want to consider the driver behind such change, namely, risk of declining sales and shrinking profits. Americans need not wait around for global, profit-driven grocers to do a SWOT analysis on consumer survey results stating that 66% of shoppers would gravitate toward a retailer that said it would ensure humane treatment of livestock, and then begrudgingly ask that their suppliers hold themselves to higher standards as a result. Indeed, many retailers making such seemingly valiant proclamations are doing so in a vague, piecemeal way. While reports that McDonald’s will “curtail use of antibiotics in its U.S. chicken” seems like a progressive stride, a closer look both shines a spotlight on the extent of the questionable practices and casts a shadow on the conviction that the corporation is as dedicated to such changes as it seems. Actually, McDonald’s commitment only applies to use of “human antibiotics,” those specifically developed and meant to treat infections in humans. Unfortunately, this is only a small shuffle in the right direction for the major American fast food chain, which was one of the first to encourage and accept widespread antibiotic use by their farmers.

As educated consumers that will increasingly demand the farming of the food that we eat be held to the highest standards, we should be wary of the too-little-too-late shifts in the practices of large corporations and instead applaud and support our local farmers and community grocers for their long-standing dedication to supplying locals with high quality, sustainable foods. No backtracking necessary here – they’ve been where we want them to be the whole time.


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