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5-Step Animal Welfare Rating: Pork

If you’ve been to our meat counter in the last couple of weeks, you probably have noticed a few changes. With the launch of the 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating Standards – the signature program of Global Animal Partnership – we’ve got new signage, brochures and labels for our Step-rated beef, chicken and pork! So what does it mean? Basically, the higher the Step number, the more interesting their environment, the more time the animals spend outside, and the more natural their life. Last week we talked about Steps 1 to 5 for our chicken. This week I want to tell you about our Step-rated pork – approximately 450 pig farms are able to supply Steps 1 through 4!

So let’s dive a bit deeper and see how the multi-tiered program impacts pigs and the farmers who raise them. At the first level, the 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating Standards program prohibits the use of crates or stalls, typically used on many pig farms. Instead, pigs at Step 1 are group-raised in barns or hoop houses. Another departure from customary practice is the flooring. Rather than spending their lives on barren, slatted flooring, Step 1 pigs are raised on good quality bedding, which helps keep them warm and comfortable. In addition, the common practices of routine tail docking and tooth clipping are not allowed. For Step 1, our pork suppliers must meet more than 110 different requirements — quite an achievement!

Step 2 requires a more enriched environment for the animals. For example, pigs have a strong drive to root and forage. In order to provide these opportunities in an indoor environment, Step-rated farmers have gotten very creative. Some provide straw bales — it’s quite a sight to see the pigs actively digging up the straw, pushing it around the pens and eating it! Other producers have provided novel objects in pens to keep pigs busy – some of our suppliers have hung chains from ceilings so the pigs can knock them around and play with them.

At Step 3, pigs must have continuous access to the outdoors during the day. Pigs can spend their time inside or roam around outside — it’s their choice. And since the Steps build on each other, Step 3 farmers also provide enrichments indoors so that the pigs can continue to root after dark or during bad weather.

At Step 4, pigs live continuously on pasture or outdoor foraging areas. Sounds easy, right? Well, going a step farther and not only giving pigs outdoor access but raising them outside takes a different kind of farming.

The 5-Step program requires that the pigs always have access to vegetative material so they can forage, and the pastures must have at least 25% vegetative cover – which is no easy feat with pigs rooting the land daily – so farmers need to be great land stewards as well as great animal managers! Pigs are prone to heat stress and sunburn, so wallows are required — these big muddy puddles are the best way to keep pigs cool on hot, sunny days. Pigs also have free access to housing or huts, which can be especially important during the winter months.

Steps 5 and 5+ are much more challenging for farmers, particularly here in North America where pigs are nearly always castrated when they are young to avoid what’s been called “boar taint” – a flavor that our palates aren’t used to. Since all physical alterations, including castration, are prohibited at Steps 5 and 5+, this is a significant challenge, but one that we know some of our producers are already facing head-on.

Step 5 also requires piglets to be raised with their littermates for their whole lives. And at Step 5+, transport is prohibited, so the pigs must be born and spend their entire lives on one farm. We’ll continue to support our producers as they explore ways to reach these levels. We are pleased to partner with dedicated family-owned farms and producers to bring you great-tasting meat. And don’t forget we also require no antibiotics - ever, no added growth hormones*, and no animal by-products in the feed.

*Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones in raising pork.

Here are our some of our pork producers with their associated Step ratings: Step 1 – American Homestead, Coleman Pork, Les Viandes du Breton, Heritage Acres and Niman Ranch Step 2 – American Homestead, Fox Hill Farms and Sweet Stem Farm (formerly Meadow Run Farm) Step 3 – Becker Lane and Dogwood Nursery Step 4 – Lucki 7 Livestock Company, NC Hog Cooperative, Simply Grazin’ and Thompson Farms

Note:  Many of these are small producers who supply only the stores that are local to their farms.

Have you tried Step-rated pork yet? We’d love to hear your thoughts! The more you know about our meat, the better.

Editor’s Note: This blog was modified on 9/22/15 to update how we refer to our standards.

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Suchata (Su) says …

Wonderful news! I have been trying to find a place where I can buy pork where I know farms do not use crates or stalls. We must respect all animals, especially pigs as they are such intelligent and loving animals. I will be buying from Whole Foods!! Thank you to all the farmers for doing that " bit extra" for the animals. I am very grateful to you all!

Keith Schuster says …

I'm in Baton Rouge, LA how do I know which producer my local Wholefoods store carries? I make my own bacon and other cured pork products and have used Wholefoods pork bellies. The flavor is great as well as texture. I have been trying to get as close to Berkshire pork quality as I can without the high cost. To date Wholefoods pork has been the closest I have come. Now that I know some background about how the pork is produced I can purchase with complete confidence!

Nikki - Community Moderator says …

@KEITH - Our vendors differ between stores so check with your local store and they'll be happy to relay who their pork belly vendor is.

Francine Trujillo says …

Love this1

Alyssa says …

Great job!! What a great way to inform and educate consumers in a more in depth way!! I hope other stores will follow you with this!! I am vegetarian after learning more about the meat industry and the terrible suffering endured by billions of animals every year! My husband and children still eat meat. I will never buy meat in a grocery store again unless they adopt something as you have! I will definitely come look at your meat counter for my family!

heather jarvis says …

do you carry any pork products from local new england farms? i live in the new england area and prefer to buy local.

Nikki - Community Moderator says …

@HEATHER - We definitely try to feature local items whenever possible. Our vendors differ between stores so it's best to check with your local store directly to see exactly where their local farms are located.

Maria says …

Love this ! i rarely eat pork but when I do i make it from Whole Foods Market because you guys care about what your selling for consumers and do not hide anything. God Bless


I have purchased Whole Foods bone-in pork chops may times, great on the grill, great taste/flavor.Occasionally when arriving at home and opening the wrapped package there has been a very unpleasant odor, what is happening.On these occurrences, I have returned to the store for a refund, any ideas to resolve my problem?

Nikki - Community Moderator says …

@CECIL - I'm so sorry about the pork chops. I would suggest checking with the meat team to make sure you are cooking the meat by the freshest time possible. Typically this will be around 3 days after purchase but the meat team should be able to let you know what they recommend.

Judy K says …

I am wondering how the pigs are slaughtered? I am not Muslim, but have started eating Halal meats do to the humane treatment and killing of the animals. I would like to keep some pork in my diet. Do Step 4 hogs have to endure the stress of being transported to slaughter houses? Thanks for the info.

Nikki - Community Moderator says …

@JUDY - Since 2011, we have required all our beef, chicken and pork suppliers to be certified to the Global Animal Partnership’s 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating Program. There are at least 100 standards to be met and each farm/ranch must pass an on-site audit every 15 months to verify they meet the standards. We also require all slaughter facilities to successfully pass annual third party audits of their animal welfare and food safety practices. Our humane slaughter standards require that all animals be stunned before slaughter. The only exception we have made to this standard at this time is for the ritual slaughter of chicken and turkey. As our product inventory varies from store to store, I would encourage you to check with your local store to see what their pork GAP rating is. You can find more detailed info for the various steps at http://www.globalanimalpartnership.org/the-5-step-program/our-standards/.

Alexandra Hopkins says …

Thank you very much for your concern about farm animals. My heart aches for the animals in factory farms. My husband read an article about how pigs are raised in factory farms and stopped wanting to eat pork. Currently, the Whole Foods in Glendale, CA carries Step 2 pork. I'll e-mail him the link so that he can decide if he's comfortable with Step 2. Thank you for explaining each step so that we can make an informed decision.

Ab says …

I was in whole foods Brighton (Mass) this week, and could only find step 1 pork, both pre-packed and at the meat counter. Surely you have a market for pasture raised meat here ?.

Heather says …

I love this program and want to ensure that the meat I eat is humanely raised and treated with respect. However, it's really disappointing to see that San Mateo doesn't have any pork above a step 1.