Walmart's antibiotic use announcement: Less than meets the eye

When a global behemoth like Walmart decides to put out new policy on animal welfare and use of antibiotics, it's guaranteed to make a splash. And it has. But how well-deserved is that attention?

It's undeniably great that Walmart recognizes that its customers want meat from animals raised in ways that sustain people, animal welfare and the environment. The Humane Society and others agree.

We're also glad that Walmart gives at least a nod to responsible antibiotic use. If there's one thing sick people and sick animals both need it is for antibiotics to work when they are actually sick.

Unfortunately, the steps Walmart puts forward won't deliver on responsible use of antibiotics. They replicate an FDA policy which has a critical flaw, one that allows for the routine use of antibiotics in feed and water to continue for large numbers of animals that aren't sick, even when there is no disease outbreak. All those antibiotics-exposed animals become potential incubators for the development and spread of drug-resistant bacteria, and ultimately undercut the future effectiveness of antibiotics when actually needed to treat infections. One good thing to be said about Walmart's antibiotics policy, I suppose, is that it encourages its suppliers to track and report on their antibiotic use. That's a positive move.

Walmart wants to present its announcement as a step forward on responsible antibiotic use. But it's actually lagging behind the industry leaders. Looking at recent announcements from Chick-fil-A, McDonalds, Perdue, and Tyson, one sees companies committed either to no longer using antibiotics, or to not using so-called medically important antibiotics (those with analogues in human medicine) in their chicken supply for birds that are not sick. That's a concrete commitment.

Walmart's antibiotics announcement so far strikes me as business as usual -- not much to write home about. Similarly, the FDA's efforts to sound good but do little have so far failed to deliver any reductions in total antibiotic sold for use in food animals. Those antibiotic sales continue to rise, up 16% since 2009 to more than 32 million pounds per year.

Nobody disagrees that sick animals should be treated with effective antibiotics. But if under the guise of supposed treatment, livestock producers continue to give unnecessary antibiotics to flocks or herds of animals that could be managed without them, then it's not just human welfare that will suffer. The future where antibiotics no longer work is a threat to the welfare of sick animals as well.