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5-Step Chicken: What’s in a Number?

By Anne Malleau, February 15, 2011  |  Meet the Blogger  |  More Posts by Anne Malleau

If you’ve visited our stores in the last week or so, you may have already seen the new signs and package labels in our meat department for the 5-Step™ Animal Welfare Rating Standards. Very exciting! This multi-tiered program – the signature program of the Global Animal Partnership – rates how farm animals are raised using independent, third-party certifiers to audit farms and assess their compliance to the different Step level standards. It’s been a big undertaking and approximately 1200 farms that supply our stores have been audited and certified! We thought you might appreciate learning a bit more about the different Step levels and the welfare they afford the chickens, pigs and cattle. Today, we’ll start with our feathered friends – chickens — and we’ll cover the other two in later posts. So, here’s what the different Step levels mean for broiler chickens. Step 1, Producers need to meet approximately 100 different standards to achieve a Step 1 certification for their birds – including providing good quality bedding (which promotes good health and welfare and allows birds to dustbathe), a maximum transport time of eight hours, and birds must not be given antibiotics or animal by-products in their feed. Each Step builds on the previous one. So birds in a Step 2 system are raised in similar conditions as Step 1 and additionally are provided with enrichments that encourage behavior that’s natural to them, such as pecking, perching and foraging. Our suppliers have found some innovative ways to do this, such as adding hay bales — it’s great to walk into a barn and see the birds pecking at the hay, standing on top of the bales, and pulling them apart.  It might sound simple, but the birds really make the most of this more interesting environment!  Other producers have used eucalyptus branches for the birds to peck at and explore. One of the big differences at Step 3 is that birds have access to the outdoors during the day. There must be shade and provisions so the birds can hide from hawks and other aerial predators, and isolate themselves,  so they feel comfortable being outdoors and get to enjoy roaming around outside the barn. ) Step 4 is the first pasture-based Step. Birds at Step 4 live continuously on pasture or in foraging areas and are only housed at night or when seasonal conditions might put them at risk. Pasture is an area of grasses managed to provide nourishment as well as a mat of vegetation under their feet.  A foraging area doesn’t need to have grass but can include bushes and low trees that provide areas where the birds can nestle and not be visible to aerial predators.  And, since chickens are descendents of Junglefowl, this gives them the perfect environment to keep busy pecking, exploring and foraging for bugs! Steps 5 and 5+ are much more challenging to achieve. At Step 5, birds are bred to thrive in an outdoor environment and must be raised in small flocks. Several of our local suppliers have been able to reach this prestigious Step rating: Field to Family, Petaluma Poultry, Pitman Family Farms and White Oak Pastures. For the highest Step level – Step 5+ – birds are bred, hatched and raised on the same farm. While there aren’t yet Step 5+ chickens, some of our suppliers are already starting to explore this option. So, now you know a bit more about the ratings on the chicken in our fresh meat case. We are pleased to offer the following Step-rated chicken by partnering with our awesome chicken vendors: Step 1 – Joyce Foods, and Townsends Step 2 – BC Natural, Bell & Evans, Eberly, Empire Kosher, FreeBird, Epicurean Farms, Pine Manor, and Wise Kosher Step 3 – BC Natural, Draper Valley, Field to Family, Petaluma Poultry, and Pitman Family Farms Step 4 – Campo Lindo Farms, Pitman Family Farms, Shenandoah Valley Farms, and Vital Farms Step 5 – Field to Family, Petaluma Poultry, Pitman Family Farms, and White Oak Pastures We’d love to hear what you think about this new program.

Blog Updated on 2/19/2015.

Category: Meat




siri says ...
This reminds my rural childhood memories of eating and playing with free range chicken. They taste great and gives a satisfaction that the chicken had a normal life cycle.
02/15/2011 3:03:51 PM CST
Martha Royer says ...
Thank you SO much for this! We really appreciate this info. I have looked at packaging & just wondered worrily how the animals fared. We used to raise livestock, and since really care about what they go through (having enjoyed watching their joy at living a 'normal' life!). This is invaluable.
02/16/2011 3:49:22 PM CST
esther says ...
This is good. I know now that i would like a chicken rated 5. But I would also like to know that this chicken has been fed organic feed (as a supplement to foraging or while indoors due to inclement weather). And that it never was fed antibiotics. Do any of your rated 5 producers fulfill this? (Field to Family, Petaluma Poultry, Pitman Family Farms and White Oak Pastures.) And one last question: when i go to Whole foods how do I request one of these chickens? At the counter there are two groups: organic and regular. thank you!
02/16/2011 5:07:20 PM CST
Margo Weisz says ...
Thank you for investing in animal welfare systems! Many of us are truly grateful.
02/16/2011 5:10:01 PM CST
Martha Utchenik says ...
Thanks so much for this easy to understand explanation of the rating system! I feel so much better knowing how to choose this type of food, and knowing you carry all step-levels!
02/16/2011 5:15:20 PM CST
paig292 says ...
@Esther In addition to Step ratings, all meat sold at our stores must meet strict quality standards, which require that animals be raised on a vegetarian diet without being administered antibiotics or added growth hormones. (Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones in raising pork, poultry, goat, veal and bison.) When you go to your local store, you will see ALL of our chicken rated with a Step 1 to Step 5 and you can choose accordingly.
02/16/2011 5:20:51 PM CST
KATHY COPA says ...
FINALLY A SYSTEM THAT THE CONSUMER CAN UNDERSTAND. It was difficult to tell which chiken was raised humanely on the old system. Since we vote with our dollar about the way we want to consume meat, I will be purchasing the chickens with the "5" ratings.
02/16/2011 5:21:08 PM CST
Stephanie says ...
I LOVE this idea and thinks it's about time we stepped up to do this. I will definitely be buying meat with the highest rating possible from now on. Thank you!
02/16/2011 5:28:03 PM CST
Susan says ...
Will these Step 2 producers be using organic hay and nonGM Alfalfa for their birds. That will make a big difference in whether consumers will buy Step 2 poultry. The ultimate will be for all of your products to be Step 5. That will ensure that these birds are not getting into GM alfalfa or grasses. (GE Bent Grass contamination is highly likely since it was put on golf courses throughout the country and has already contaminated the wild grasses in Oregon around where the GE Bent Grass was grown.)
02/16/2011 5:51:15 PM CST
Florence Kadagian says ...
No mention is made of GMOs. What is their place in this new order? Thank you
02/16/2011 5:51:27 PM CST
paig292 says ...
@Florence These are animal welfare standards. For concerns about them being fed GMO grain, you'll need to look for organic labeling in addition to their step rating.
02/16/2011 5:52:18 PM CST
Aneah Epshteyn says ...
This is wonderful! I will be sure to share this information on my website and to my readers. Kudo's to you for encouraging and carrying products that I am happy to pay more for, knowing that the animals were cared for the way they were meant to be.
02/16/2011 6:16:15 PM CST
Pamela Graham says ...
My first one-word response to this: touching. As in, touched my heart. This is the natural order of things, the way our great-parents knew and expected it to be. I've owned and loved birds before and this is the environment they understand and thrive in. I will come to Whole Foods for these birds. Thank you for making this simple to understand. Please keep informing us.
02/16/2011 6:31:43 PM CST
Elizabeth Hunter says ...
So far, so good. I am glad to see attention being given to the quality of life of all creatures. What about what happens AFTER all this -- when they have a trip of up to 8 hours, in cages for the first time, to go to slaughter? Does this cause a lot of stress chemicals to be released, which are passed on to us? I have heard of small farmers who kill the birds on their premises, is that a future goal for Whole Foods? I like knowing how our food is raised & I am impressed to see the 5-Step Animal Welfare program in your stores. I also like the ANDI program for produce; it's direct and helps customers choose higher-nutrient foods easily. I hope this kind of thinking is encouraged from management on down to every store employee. It creates an atmosphere of thoughtfulness and fosters curiosity about things we have taken for granted for decades. Thank you!
02/16/2011 6:34:03 PM CST
paig292 says ...
@Elizabeth While the Global Animal Partnership's 5-Step Program governs the way the birds are raised and transported, there are no 5-Step slaughter standards available currently. However, to make sure that birds are humanely slaughtered, Whole Foods Market has its own strict slaughter requirements. In order to be a Whole Foods Market approved facility, we require each slaughter plant to have an annual animal welfare audit based on the National Chicken Council Animal Welfare Guidelines and Poultry Slaughter Plant and Farm Audit: Critical Control Point for Bird Welfare written by Dr Temple Grandin. Audits are conducted by third party organizations and are designed to audit a series of critical control points to ensure good animal welfare and handling at each plant.
02/16/2011 6:35:25 PM CST
Denelle Swaim says ...
This is so exciting! Thanks for the details on the program, but PLEASE start selling chicken Step 3 and higher to your stores! (Step 2 is the highest available at my store). You might want to add Step numbers to the eggs while you're at it! :) Either way, it's a "step" in the right direction. Thanks WF!!!
02/16/2011 6:37:20 PM CST
Dorothy says ...
I notice that Petaluma Poultry offers chickens in both the Step 3 and Step 5 ranges. How will I know the difference, is it noted somehow in the packaging? Also, I really like this new program, I also appreciate, very much your participation in the 'responsible seafood watch program. Thanks
02/16/2011 6:38:33 PM CST
paig292 says ...
@Dorothy Yes, the packaging will show Step 3 or Step 5 so you can choose accordingly.
02/16/2011 6:39:50 PM CST
Sabina Mazac says ...
Thanks for the great info! I was a little confused about step 5 though. On the webpage below it said the following about step 5: http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/meat/welfare.php?utm_source=Responsys&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=2011_02_16_Specials step 5: Animal centered; all physical alterations prohibited "Animals get to live their whole lives with all the body parts they were born with." However, that wasn't mentioned in the article above. Furthermore, it would be helpful to provide more of an explanation on the FAQ page about the body parts thing because I doubt most people are aware of what body parts are removed and why. Thanks so much for doing an awesome job of increasing our food standards!
02/16/2011 6:51:37 PM CST
Betty Gibson says ...
This is the same way my Grandmother raised her chickens in the early 1930's & 40's and I'm sure she did the same way before I was born! There was a chicken house and a chicken yard. The only time anyone went into the yard was to feed the chickens and gather the eggs. Those were things I could do for her when I went to visit.
02/16/2011 7:01:42 PM CST
Anna Skibinsky says ...
I think this is a great idea. A manager at Whole Foods mentioned that WF would be starting a "cruelty rating" for all types of meat products. I fully support this and would be willing to pay more for higher quality, cruelty free meat, fish or seafood. Anna Skibinsky Washington, DC
02/16/2011 7:22:04 PM CST
aleks says ...
Only because growth hormones are not mentioned here, can I be assured that step 1 chickens are not raised with growth hormones as well as antibiotics? I hope that growth hormones are not allowed for any of the ratings, and I'm surprised they are not mentioned.
02/16/2011 7:35:48 PM CST
paig292 says ...
@Aleks Sorry for leaving that off this blog post! In addition to Step ratings, all meat sold at our stores must meet strict quality standards, which require that animals be raised on a vegetarian diet without being administered antibiotics or added growth hormones. (Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones in raising pork, poultry, goat, veal and bison.)
02/16/2011 7:36:19 PM CST
aleks says ...
Are chickens 1-5 all given natural feed? It's good that they are not given animal by products, but does their feed contain preservatives and other additives?
02/16/2011 7:37:10 PM CST
Heather Thurston says ...
This is AWESOME!!! Thank you for being the revolutionaries in this field. I hope that this will make consumers more aware of where their meat is coming from!!
02/16/2011 7:51:48 PM CST