People for the Ethical Treatement 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 Food Marketing Institute guidelines 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 officials say the guidelines, under development for nearly two years, were developed with substantial input from leading producer groups.

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.

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-hanlding verification guidlelines and an agreement to secure egg suppliers who do not practice forced molting of laying hens.