Our Animal Welfare Standards: Separating Fact from Fiction

Editor's note: The President and CEO of The Humane Society of the Unites States, Wayne Pacelle, wrote on his own blog about this issue. Read his thoughts about Whole Foods Market’s anti-factory farming leadership.

Recently, there has been noise generated by PETA that questions the animal welfare standards we use to certify our partner farmers. I want to help set the record straight and reaffirm Whole Foods Market’s unwavering commitment to sourcing from responsible animal welfare practices and standards.

We all need to be clear about PETA’s mission. PETA is dedicated to ending animal agriculture and animal meat consumption. Period. The allegations they hurl at Whole Foods Market, and the many other targets on their hit list, are generated with that specific agenda in mind.

We firmly believe PETA’s lawsuit filed in California is without merit and is a waste of both the court’s time and taxpayer money. Like the silly “monkey selfie” lawsuit PETA filed against a photographer the same week they sued our business, PETA’s lawsuit against us is clearly designed to generate publicity while smearing our reputation. Oddly, their suit against us was filed in California, more than 2,800 miles and three time zones away from where our customers can buy the local pork products sourced from Sweet Stem Farm in 22 stores in three states.

Here’s what I want to make sure you know:

  • We have spent years working with Global Animal Partnership developing and implementing very rigorous standards for animal welfare and husbandry that extends to every one of our beef, chicken, pork and turkey suppliers; the most rigorous–by far–of any grocer. That’s a point of pride for us.
  • Representatives from PETA participated in the discussions that led to the animal welfare standards we use today.
  • Our meat teams help us ensure products are sourced from suppliers that are dedicated to responsible farming practices. This includes our teams vetting every meat supplier through a stringent approval process to ensure they meet or exceed Whole Foods Market’s quality standards.
  • All beef, chicken, pork and turkey in our fresh meat cases must come from producers who have achieved certification to the Global Animal Partnership’s (GAP) 5-Step® Animal Welfare Rating designed to promote farm animal welfare. GAP – a nonprofit collaboration between farmers, ranchers, animal welfare advocacy organizations, scientists and retailers like us – is committed to continual improvement of farm animal welfare.  
  • Independent third party auditors ensure GAP-certified producers are meeting Step standards, thereby providing transparency to specific production practices.
  • All of our meat is no-antibiotics, no added hormones and no animal by-products in feed – ever.
  • As a condition of doing business with Whole Foods Market, partner farmers must affirm their commitment to our standards throughout their supply chain. And if we are informed of a potential issue on a supplier farm, we rapidly investigate to determine the facts and take appropriate action.

Since we first opened our doors more than 35 years ago, co-founder and co-CEO John Mackey, myself and thousands of passionate, dedicated team members have worked tirelessly to change the food industry for the better. Over the years we have successfully pushed that bar higher and challenged and encouraged players in the food processing and production industries to raise their animal welfare standards.

We are far from finished, but our leadership role begs the question: Why does PETA choose to focus its venom on those who are tangibly and dramatically improving farm animal welfare by providing accountability through collaboration, transparency of production and traceability to source? These are the foundations for the development of a truly responsible pasture-based form of animal agriculture.

From 1981, when we stopped selling meat with added hormones, to the introduction of our ground-breaking Global Animal Partnership 5 Step® Animal Welfare Rating program in 2011, we have gone well above and beyond anyone else in the grocery industry, and that fact is beyond dispute.

We remain committed to providing the best quality and ethically sourced meat, fish, and poultry products, and are not distracted by the cynical, publicity-driven efforts of our critics. Whole Foods Market’s No. 1 priority is to ensure that our customers have the information they need to make the best, most informed choices for them and their families, and that every product on our shelves meets the rigorous quality standards that set us so far apart from our competition.

We thank you for your ongoing loyalty to Whole Foods Market!

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Heidi Smalley says …

Thank you, as always, for the transparency on the tough topics. When I heard about this lawsuit on the news- I knew that was not the whole story. I, as a Team Member, greatly appreciate the fact that our company walks the walk- and is pro-active when it comes to issues that affect us all. I, for one, am very proud to be associated with Whole Foods Market- a company that has integrity and puts people as well as the ethical treatment of animals above profit. Thank you!

phillip the pickle says …

Well said. It's unfortunate a large organization like PETA with a positive and loving mission is often associated with anger, and frivolous lawsuits. If they spent more of their time and money on educating the public and their own team members, they may not be seen as the way they do. Whole Foods Market is one of the few and first companies with ANY standards at all. Why do people attack the only companies that care? Because they don't think the system is perfect? Well that's what communication is for. That's what growth is for. This comment has been written by a vegan of 17 years, when you have vegans that don't support PETA in any way, that's pretty bad. Wake up.

Tuck Kamin says …

Make Whole Foods likeable again. Your present brand is slick and terribly expected. You need a system wide wake up call that you are the champion again for people. Your ads say it but they are all expected and seem elitist. Look. The work might seem beautiful. But it is soul less. Show why you have value. Be more disruptive and fun.

Adrianna Antoniw says …

I myself am confused by what PETA stands for, especially when someone like Pamela Anderson is used as a spokes model.

Chris Talley says …

I support Petas attempts to improve animal welfare, just like I applaud Whole Foods for the same, but I don't believe Peta's only intent is to stop animal consumption. Having been Pescatarian (fish only) for years, I started buying level 5 meats at Whole foods about a year ago and liked the addition of chicken and beef to our diet, but this video was disturbing so I wrote to your communications dept and got an email from your South Pacific communications manager and she said, "Whole Foods Market made a visit to the farm within hours of being made aware of the video and the animals do meet all of the requirements for Gap Step 2 certification. This includes our teams vetting every meat supplier through a stringent approval process to ensure they meet or exceed Whole Foods Market’s quality standards." I really wish she would have said that we made some corrections or recommendations to the farm, but instead she said it met their Gap 2 standards. There was no enrichment for those animals. They were crammed together in a large indoor pen with no ability to ever get sunlight (not sure if sunlight is required for gap 2, but I know room to move/lay down and enrichment is). Additionally, in preparation for the slaughter house, the animals were moved into a large truck, kept there for 24 hours, in extreme heat, and literally forced on top of each other. That's acceptable for any standard? That's why I wish that Whole Foods position would have been to take some corrective action, anything... but to say it met the Gap 2 requirements and was acceptable was disturbing to me. I strongly support your endeavors to help improve animal welfare and hope more stores do too, but if Whole food finds this acceptable for Gap 2, then I find it disappointing and will have to go back to sourcing my meat from local farms for humanely treated animals. Its a lot more work and more expensive, but animal welfare is very important to many of us, and not just some of the time...

Shelley Hardy says …

It's too bad PETA chose this path. We are on the same side, aren't we-accountability and the total care and welfare of animals-? When I think back to the cover letter for my resume (when applying to work here), I stated that one of my goals was to work for a company whose ideals and philosophies were in line with my own. Animal welfare is right at the top of my list. I have faith in Whole Foods Market and couldn't be more proud to work for this amazing company! Thank you for keeping us informed, as always.

jennifer jones says …

I so appreciate your words Walter and I love what whole foods stands for. NO ONE does it better!

Roy Benson says …

Appreciation to you and your Team. Thankful for transparency and face to face conversation regarding today's controversy relating to Whole Foods customers and company.

Veganasaurus says …

Thank you for addressing this issue. I really enjoy the culture, uniqueness, vibrancy, and progressive nature of WFM, and want to help it progress. I have worked here at WFM a decade, BUT I share and support PETA's stance that animals should not be eaten or sold for food, regardless of however they or any group approaches it. You can say WFM slightly improves the implorable status quo of selling animal products, and that is not lost here, but while we’re on the subject, I’d like to point out that the most ethical and environmentally responsible thing we can do for the world right now, is to stop selling and supporting animal products/agriculture completely, no question. Many of WFMs TMs feel this way. Vs. None of PETAs employees, feel the way WFM does. Think about it. What do YOU want the world's human, animal, and environmental health to look like, now and in the future? Compared to a plant-derived diet (which is completely sufficient for thriving human health) the use of animal products, costs the planet exponentially more resources, make more pollution, and cause innocent being to suffer, while the humans who consume them get disease. Vegan is simply more Whole Foods than Whole Foods. You might have to tweak our business model to evolve, but times are changing: we can innovate, or follow. And I volunteer my help.

Molly Thayer says …

Hi Walter, thank you for this post! I appreciate your transparency and accountability. In line with the topic of respectful treatment of animals in meat and dairy production, I am wondering about a certain milk company that I have recently found and believe should be sold in Whole Foods Market stores: Fairlife. I urge you to partner with this company as it holds itself to a standard of environmental sustainability and ethical animal treatment that is very hard to find among large-scale industries. Their milk is already being sold in dozens of grocery stores such as Stop&Shop, Walmart, Safeway, and Target. It is time for Whole Foods to lead the way for other food markets that hold themselves to a similar higher standard by reaching out to Fairlife and selling their milk for the betterment of the planet, the cows, and the people. Here is the link to their website to find out more about their process, their farm, and their products. mhttp://fairlife.com/

Dee says …

I am a big supporter of Whole Foods. I'm frequently urging my friends to shop at Whole Foods because I believe the standards are very high. I don't support PETA and a lawsuit in this case is ridiculous. Nevertheless, I remain very concerned about the video that shows pigs being injected with some type of a drug. Whole Foods has not yet addressed what the video clearly depicts. I'm an open-minded Whole Food customer but I also want a direct answer from Whole Foods regarding what is taking place in the video. Instead of addressing the video Whole Foods is attacking PETA while PETA is attacking Whole Foods. How about addressing the question which is "What's taking place in that video". My concerns as a customer have not yet been addressed. This in itself is a problem.

Dee Martin says …

I genuinely appreciate Whole Foods approach to the 5-step program. Consumers can now make educated choices based on the various levels of human treatment given farm animals destined for human consumption rather than price alone. It is a very nice concept. I also appreciate WFM's emphasis on providing consumers with non-animal tested products. Overall I really enjoy shopping at Whole Foods. I don't know, however, if PETA's motives are the real issue here. The video speaks for itself & WFM will have to defend itself in court. If the case is frivolous - then it will be thrown out early on. If not, then WFM may have a battle. I don't like PETA's videos because they tend to sensationalize and they do so without any educational process. Sometimes they are sliced and diced whereby the viewer is left trying to piece the facts together. However, the video clearly shows extensive overcrowding both prior to transportation and during transportation but perhaps that scenario does fit a Level 2 certification. If so, consumers should either upgrade to a Level 3 or 4 thereby making sure they are in line with their own animal welfare values. That's the beauty of choice. On the other hand, the video does show the pigs being injected with some type of a drug. This is the aspect that I believe the court might have difficulty with. Perhaps these injections were authorized by a veterinarian. Only time and unbiased facts will determine this case for WFM. Thank you!

Dr Wendy Wolfson says …

Dear Mr. Robb, I am a frequent shopper of Whole Foods in the Baton Rouge and New Orleans areas. I am a veterinarian who teaches shelter medicine at LSU Veterinary school. I am am avid plant enthusiast so I visit your cut flower and plant area every visit I make to the store. I know your company is animal friendly, however your plant section is not. Virtually every bouquet had specimens that are fatal to cats and could make dogs very ill. My suggestion is a pet friendly grouping of bouquets and plants for those who have pets. I tried to explain this to the manager at the Whole Foods in Baton Rouge and got a very uncaring and rude response. I hope you can appreciate my concern for pet owners who are presented with these lovely but toxic presents. If I can help in any way please let me know. Dr WW

Marlene Johnson says …

I am really disgusted with Whole Foods, I have been shopping here every since it was Bread and Circus. I spend about 1500-200 $ a week on groceries, now I hear that your meat is a lie, I will not shop at your store anymor and shop at your competitors "Trader Joe" I also think I will pass the word along to my Twitter, Facebook, blog and my web page. Shame on whole foods. For the record PETA is not about getting people to stop eating meat, it's getting the word out of cruelty to animals