People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is targeting the Kroger Co. in an effort to persuade the nation's leading grocery chain to adopt a get-tough policy on animal handling.

In a letter to Kroger Chairman and CEO Joseph A. Pichler, PETA is threatening a "cruelty boycott" unless the company adopts the Food Marketing Institute guidelines on animal handling scheduled for release next month.

Kroger went on record in support of FMI's soon-to-be-released standards in July 2001 and said it is cooperating with the organization to ensure that animals are treated humanely during the production process.

"FMI has said it will complete the formal review process shortly," the Cincinnati-based supermarket retailer said in a statement. "We believe this collaborative approach, which brings together processors, producers, retailers and animal welfare experts, will raise the standards in the meat and poultry industries."

FMI officials said the guidelines, under development for nearly two years, were developed with substantial input from leading producer groups.

"Without their input and participation, it's not possible to achieve implementation," said Karen Brown, FMI media relations director. "They helped us identify gaps in our proposal. There are some tough issues involved in animal handling, but we have been working with our advisors to create guidelines that will work for our members."

Among those serving on FMI's advisory committee are:

  • Adele Douglass, executive director, Farm Animal Services, which manages the Free Farmed program.
  • Temple Grandin, assistant professor, Department of Animal Sciences, Colorado State University, and one of the world's leading experts on livestock handling procedures.
  • Joe Mac Regenstein, professor of Food Science, Cornell University.
  • Gail C. Golab, veterinarian, American Veterinary Medical Association.

But general support for the policy isn't enough for PETA, which just called off its campaign against Safeway after that grocery chain agreed to adopt new standards.

"It's all well and good to endorse these standards, but if you do nothing to enforce them, it doesn't make any difference," said Bruce Friedrich, PETA's vegetarian campaign coordinator.

Under pressure from PETA, Safeway, the country's third-largest grocery chain, already has agreed to conduct audits of all of its animal-product suppliers and drop suppliers that fail two audits.

The standards call for auditing of packing plants by qualified third-party auditors, and will include guidelines to provide increased cage space for laying hens, animal-handling verification guidelines and an agreement to secure egg suppliers who do not practice forced molting of laying hens.

"Would we like all grocery chains to adopt these guidelines when they're completed? Of course," Brown said, "That would be good for everyone. But they're voluntary. We can't force anyone to adopt them."