Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club issued a surprise announcement today, good news for the growing number of consumers striving to eat more ethically. The country’s largest food retailer has boldly proclaimed that “farm animals in our supply chain should be treated humanely throughout their lives and that the welfare of farm animals should be considered in selection of all production systems, practices and technologies.”

The company’s new policy specifies that its food suppliers must  “not tolerate animal abuse of any kind” and adds that it will work with suppliers to  implement practices that uphold the globally-recognized “Five Freedoms” of  animal welfare: Freedom from Hunger and Thirst; Freedom from Discomfort; Freedom from Pain, Injury or Disease; Freedom to Express Normal Behavior; and Freedom from Fear and Distress.

By renouncing the use of extreme confinement in animal agriculture, Wal-Mart’s new policy signals “an extraordinary change in agriculture in America,” Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, said in a statement praising the decision. Given the sheer size of the company, its policy will help “drive the transition away from immobilizing cages and other inhumane practices, and toward a more humane, more sustainable approach to production agriculture,” Pacelle predicted.

Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine any news that could help make humane eating more mainstream.

Wal-Mart’s announcement is particularly encouraging to me. As a conservative evangelical Christian, I view humane treatment of animals as a biblical mandate, one that has, unfortunately, gotten lost for too long amid seemingly more pressing cultural and economic concerns.

While the modern animal welfare movement was, in fact, led by evangelicals such as John Wesley, William Wilberforce and Hannah More, in recent decades, it seems the only people who cared one way or the other about eating animals were farmers, Hindus, vegans and PETA.

But somewhere in the moderate middle — arising perhaps out of an increasing discomfort among the masses with the side-by-side existence on this planet of excessive consumerism and staggering poverty — is a growing desire to bring justice and mercy to the table. More people of faith — myself included — have started to see more clearly the connections between private practices and global impact, between the way we live and how others, including animals, suffer.

In my own case, growing up in rural Maine among subsistence-level and hobby farmers, I did not become aware that large-scale concentrated animal feeding operations even existed until well into my adulthood.

It was hard to believe at first that the gentle, idyllic animal husbandry of my childhood — the same one depicted in the Bible in passages like the one that prohibits the muzzling of the ox threshing the grain and the one encouraging the rescue of a fallen donkey even on the Sabbath — was so far from the modern, industrialized norm.

My own awareness only slowly turned into conviction, and even more gradually did conviction evolve into altered practices. It has been easy to blame deep economic and consumer structures for practices at odds with a pricked conscience.

Wal-Mart’s new policy will make it a little harder for me to pass the buck and, hopefully, a little easier to eat ethically. Even more significantly, it will help my own faith community and others to continue important, ongoing conversations about bringing ethical eating to the table.

Karen Swallow Prior is a professor of English at Liberty University and a research fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. She is the author of “Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More.”

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