Walmart: The Enemy of Sustainable Meat Production

Last Updated Feb 22, 2010 7:04 PM EST

Larry Pope, the CEO of Smithfield Foods (SFD), the country's largest producer of pork, recently griped that Walmart (WMT) is hampering his ability to produce meat sustainably because of the retail giant's relentless demand for rock bottom prices. He's got a point.

Walmart has been awarded lots of accolades for the authenticity of its sustainability initiatives, but its religious adherence to lower than low prices is its Achilles' heel. While bargain basement prices are a fine thing, especially with at least six million Americans out of work, increasing numbers of consumers -- including more than few Walmart shoppers -- are concerned about the way their meat is produced. They want hamburger and bacon that's been raised without antibiotics and on farms where animals aren't living on top of each other in their own excrement and where workers don't hit cows over the head with wrenches. But they can't have it both ways.

That's what Pope was getting at when he decided to take on the mighty bully known as Walmart. As he explained to members of the National Meat Association, the growing and raising of pigs, chicken and cattle these days ranges from barely profitable to unprofitable, and that's before you add in more humane treatment and the additional roaming space that would make the routine administration of antibiotics much less necessary. Having Walmart put a ban on price increases from its meat suppliers doesn't help.

There's no easy solution. If Smithfield is serious about addressing the criticism its sustained from movies like Food, Inc. and news reports like CBS News' recent investigation on antibiotic resistance, its got to be a leader and take a few chances. But it would make the job a lot easier if Walmart would stop pretending it can sell fresh hamburger meat for $3.50 a pound and 24 frozen mini hamburger patties for $8.82 and still be the champion of organics and savior of the small farmer.

(Photo by ceridwen, Wikimedia Commons)