Bob Bestler

Bob Bestler | Wal-Mart making moves I can get behind

Customers walk outside of a Wal-Mart store in San Jose, Calif. Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest food retailer, is urging its thousands of U.S. suppliers to curb the use of antibiotics in farm animals and improve treatment of them.
Customers walk outside of a Wal-Mart store in San Jose, Calif. Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest food retailer, is urging its thousands of U.S. suppliers to curb the use of antibiotics in farm animals and improve treatment of them. The Associated Press

I once interviewed a Wal-Mart employee at a Surfside Beach store about a charity event in which he was involved.

The event had nothing to do with Wal-Mart, yet as the interview got underway, I noticed another man sitting a few feet away.

I asked about that and was told he was there to monitor the employee’s statement to a member of the press.

Really? The man was not trusted enough to speak without, uh, daddy present? What are we, back on the plantation?

It was just one more reason for me to dislike Wal-Mart.

I knew about its treatment of employees regarding pay and scheduling. I knew that it tended to prefer part-time employees (pardon me, associates) to full-time employees — seemingly to avoid expensive health insurance and other costly benefits.

I knew that it was putting a lot of small retailers out of business because of its heavy discounts that a small business could never match. Nothing illegal there, of course. Survival of the fittest and all that. I just didn’t like it.

I also didn’t like the way it was hurting small towns across the country by locating on cheap land outside town limits and turning downtowns into ghost towns.

I didn’t know anyone else who was fond of Wal-Mart — well, except for a couple of golfing friends from Ireland.

They got up early, long before their tee times, just to visit a 24-hour Wal-Mart. They couldn’t get enough because there was nothing like a Wal-Mart in Ireland. They could not believe all the stuff in that store.

But I digress.

In recent months, I’ve watched as Wal-Mart began taking the lead in dealing with some important social issues.

In February, it announced that 500,000 of its lowest paid full- and part-time employees would get a minimum wage of $9 an hour — $1.75 above the federal minimum. That will go to $10 next February.

Granted, the decision, which will cost Wal-Mart about $1 billion, came on the heels of last year’s Black Friday protests at several Wal-Marts, but officials say the decision had been made before that.

This week came another piece of news that told me this isn’t my mother’s Wal-Mart.

The retailer, which accounts for about 25 percent of all the U.S. food business, said it had asked meat producers, egg suppliers and others to use antibiotics only for disease prevention or treatment, not to fatten their animals as is a common food industry practice. Overuse of antibiotics is permitting germs to develop resistance to the drugs, making diseases more difficult to treat.

Wal-Mart also asked that suppliers stop using pig gestation crates and other housing that does not give the animals room to move. They are also being asked to avoid painful procedures like de-horning or castration without pain killers.

The moves were hailed by animal activists. Noting that Wal-Mart accounts for 25 percent of the U.S. food industry, they said such sweeping changes could become the blueprint for America’s food industry.

So maybe it’s time to hail Wal-Mart, not bury it. A company that cares about the most innocent and helpless of animals is one that I will support most any day.

Contact Bob Bestler at bestler6@tds.net.

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