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5-Step Chicken: What’s in a Number?

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.

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198 comments

Comments

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!

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.)

paig292 says …

@Susan A number of step-rated producers are certified organic as well. You can look for organic labeling to address your feed concerns.

Florence Kadagian says …

No mention is made of GMOs. What is their place in this new order? Thank you

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.

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!!!

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

paig292 says …

@Dorothy Yes, the packaging will show Step 3 or Step 5 so you can choose accordingly.

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!

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.

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

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?

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!!

Shelly says …

What about pastured poultry that are in 10 foot by 12 foot floor-less boxes which are moved to a new section of grass each morning. They are contained in a box of sorts (although one whole side and top is chicken wire or mesh, the other half is wood for protection from the elements), but this box moves every single day to new pastured grass, thus giving the birds new bugs to eat, new nutrients to eat, and fresh area for feces to be dropped. Would this type of chicken farming not even make level one because the chickens are loosely enclosed, even though they are receiving fresh pasture every day?

Kim says …

Excellent! Most importantly the animals are now experiencing a quality of life that they should be assured. We have been driving extra distance and spending a lot of time to purchase pasture raised chicken and eggs. Very happy that Whole Foods is making this important step.I have also been happy to see more grass fed beef in your stores. We feel healthy animal fats (in moderation) are imperative to our diet and health.

ddeborah semine says …

Thank you for detailing your step program. I also would like an answer to Elizabeth Hunter questions. How and where the animals are slaughtered are just as important as how and where they are raised.

Mindy says …

I'm so glad to see this type of responsible farming. But why don't I see any level higher than a #2 for chickens in your stores?

Pamela Kramer says …

That all sounds wonderful. Question: are both males and females used for food chickens? Also, what about the slaughter procedure? How is that ensured to be humane? How are the chickens transported? I would like more information on that process. Thanks!

Alisha Hanson-Glatzel says …

Wow...this is amazing! I'm sure this was not an easy task to achieve. Bravo - for setting the bar to a higher level. I for one find this extremely helpful. It's hard to pay more per pound for something when you don't know what the difference is or why - so I usually end up going with the middle of the road pricing. This gives me a way to decide if I think it's worth pay $x.xx Thank you very much! I look forward to supporting the farms who make their jobs harder in order to provide a better life for the animals they raise for food.

Beth says …

This is such wonderful news, and thank you for having this program in your stores! I agree, please add it to the eggs too!

Sandy Morgan says …

Appreciate the work Whole Foods is doing to participate in the GAP rating. Look forward to knowing more about the farms who are certified on an ongoing basis. Will packaging represent those farms and their ratings? I would prefer to purchase from a farm that is certified as a 5 or better. Thanks. Sandy Morgan

Jackie says …

I would love to buy chicken from Whole Foods, but the highest rating at all of my local stores is only a 2! Hopefully a higher step is coming my way. Also, is there a step rating process for when the birds are slaughtered. There is no nice way to slaughter an animal, but many times this effects the meat and there are definitely more humane ways of doing it than most major processing plants do it. I think to truly care about animal welfare we need to care as much about how the animal is slaughtered as how it is raised and how it lived.

robin says …

I think this is wonderful but you don't mention how they are killed. Is that done humanely also?

Judy Harris says …

I appreciate this new system. I am striving to be able to purchase only good meats, and so many of meat products say they don't use hormones or antibiotics, yet you have no ideal what other stress factors the animals have endured. I like knowing the standards at each level, this helps me to choose the standard of quality meat I wish to purchase. I am looking forward to reading the other meat standards. Thank you for sharing and educating your customers.

Jennifer Stephenson says …

Thanks so much! really informative - I love that you followed it up w/ the brands that have achieved this status.

Maureen Hanrahan says …

What step level of chicken are you going to use in your prepared meals such as the cooked chickens, plus chicken salad in the prepared salads etc.

Stella says …

I have already rejected some step 1 chicken for some step 2...and look forward to seeing those step numbers rise at my Whole Foods store. And I agree with other posters; let's see this program attached to the slaughtering process, and to egg production. I buy local, free range chickens during the "season" but in winter rely on Whole Foods birds...I am so grateful to have both outlets available to me. Animal welfare awareness, and programs such as this, reflect a paradigm shift in the American consciousness about our food sources...and isn't it about time?!

Lisa says …

I am SO delighted to have this information! I am constantly trying to source my food ethically and I read labels carefully but the marketing terms make it very tricky to truly understand what they actually mean by "all natural". This rating system allows me to make educated choices and feel good about I am getting. I also agree about the rating for eggs...THANK YOU!!!

Diana says …

This year, my husband and I will start raising chickens to sell in Virginia As small producers, we'll only have about 100 birds a month available, so we won't enter the Whole Foods market, but if we did, we'd get the level 5 rating. I am pleased to see so many of your customers concerned about slaughter practices. After processing pastured chickens on another small farm last season, my husband and I agreed that we wanted to take extra care to minimize the stress on the birds at slaughter, even if it will cost us a bit of efficiency. For us, that means having them "fast" only 18 hours before slaughter, trying to pick them up gently, not by their legs when possible, and allowing them to roam in a comfortable pen near to, out of sight from, the processing area until the last minute. It's great to see such great sales and prices on organic chicken at whole foods ($1.69/lb), but that has to be for level 1 or 2, right? We've run the numbers again and again for our venture, and we would lose money at that price!

Ann G says …

I am so glad to see that animal welfare is important to Whole Foods. It is very important to me and it is why I shop at Whole Foods. What happened to the Vital Farms eggs at the Kentlands store? Are there any egg producers with this standard closer to home? I am willing to pay so that the chickens can have a better life and I can enjoy the eggs guilt free. Also, when will we get the step 3 and higher ratings?

Mary says …

Excellent! Hurray for your commitment to decent standards for animals. We're proud to have your store in our neighborhood. Mary

Kimberley says …

THIS IS WONDERFUL NEWS!! Thank you SO much, Whole Foods, for taking such meaningful steps to help consumers who care about the ethics of our food chain know they have a retail source for food raised right!! This is THE reason I have shopped at Whole Foods for many years, and I will always be your biggest fan due to this animal-welfare commitment you put into practice. With all my heart, I thank you. Kind regards, Kimberley Fonner (formerly of Redwood City, CA, now of Glendale, OH where I wish you would open a new store!).

Betsy says …

Hi - I'm curious about Step 3. How big does the access to the outdoors need to be in order for the birds to choose to go outside? Is this a part of the criteria to acheive this level? Please add this rating to eggs as well. This research and certification is appreciated - thank you for initiating this next step in the quality and value that Whole Foods brings to my world. Yet another reason I choose to shop WF's and share the WF's lifestyle with family and friends.

Jennifer Oppenheim says …

This is just great! Thanks Whole Foods.

Jen Niles says …

This makes me so happy I have tears in my eyes!!! I am so glad I can shop with confidence knowing exactly how the animals were raised and cared for!!! Great job keep up the good work!!!!

Linda says …

This is wonderful news and a very positive step in the right direction. Like many others, however, I am concerned about the slaughtering process, and I encourage you to implement a ratings system that incorporates information about this. Until I can be assured that the animals experience little or no pain or stress, I'll continue to eat vegetarian.

Trey Smith says …

Very cool to see some metrics and standards applied to this industry, and make that info available and easily understood for consumers!

Heidi S says …

can you please make available a condensed, overview-type page (pdf) that can be used as reference and given to friends/family? nothing too complicated, just something with a brief synopsis of the 5 step animal rating system that can be kept in a purse/wallet and referred to when shopping?

Susan Hendricks says …

Thank you Whole Foods! I am Vegetarian, but have a meat eating husband to feed, and I always struggled with the morality of buying factory farmed meat for my husband to eat, when it went against all my principles to financially support CAFO's and factory farms. I'll now be buying all my (husbands) meat at Whole Foods, and will willingly pay more for animals that are raised and slaughtered humanely.

LN says …

This is FANTASTIC and something I've long been waiting for. Will there be a way to tell in-stores which farm the chicken came for? Specifically, for White Oak Pastures? I'd prefer to support the one farm that is upholding only the highest level with all of their chickens.

Ned says …

Excellent! My moral questioning goes out the window when I smell and anticipate eating chicken fresh off the spit; the least I hope for is the chicken experienced a good (hopefully #5) life.

Julie says …

....agree with Paul.....it is nice to rationalize in our own minds that 'wow, these animals lived decent lives....so I am now able to justify my 'need' to eat them for my own self satisfaction".....gee, I hope that one day thousands of years from now, if there is a species of greater intelligence than human beings that they don't decide that it is ok to eat a bbq human sandwich since the humans amazingly lived "decent lives" (in their own minds)......

Kelly says …

AWESOME! I look forward to seeing this rating on layers/eggs. Otherwise I'll wait till the farmer's market is open again for my local humane eggs...

Judi says …

Thank you so much! I asked (email) my local store (Duke St. - Old Town, Alexandria) about this a couple of weeks ago but didn't get an answer. Organic is good - but corn is not a natural grain for chickens; since most commercial chickens are corn-fed and I'm allergic to corn this is a problem. I'm very happy to see that you have an east coast provider (Shenandoah Valley Farms) at level 5 which gives me some assurance that I can have chicken without corn. Thank you again and again!!

Annalisa says …

Thank you SO much for providing this information to your consumers. It is greatly appreciated.

Samirah says …

I LOVE this step program. It's important to me to know that the meats I eat aren't a product of abuse. I've noticed, especially with eggs, the quality is better when the animal is happy. I'm happy to know that suppliers care enough to do the research and implementation for these environments!

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