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Moving Up: Get the Lowdown on 5-Step Beef

By Anne Malleau, March 4, 2011  |  Meet the Blogger  |  More Posts by Anne Malleau


Okay, so by now you must have seen our new signage at the meat counter for our beef, chicken and pork or maybe you’ve read our chicken and pork blogs over the last couple of weeks. We now require our beef cattle, chicken and pig farms to be audited and certified to the 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating Standards – the signature program of Global Animal Partnership. So let’s talk beef. What does it all mean? The program is multi-tiered but essentially the higher the Step number, the more time the animals spend on range or pasture and the more natural their life. Note: Because it takes about two years to raise beef cattle, ranchers often specialize in raising calves or yearlings or finishing cattle, so these animals are often moved from ranch to ranch at various ages.

One of the unique aspects of the 5-Step program is that every ranch involved in rearing cattle throughout the production chain has been audited and certified. While cattle may spend parts of their lives at operations certified to different Step levels, the final rating on the package will always show the lowest Step rating issued in that particular production chain.


Step 1 requires no antibiotics - ever, no added growth hormones, and no animal by-products in the feed. Calves must remain with their mothers for a minimum of 6 months, spend at least 2/3 of their lives on range or pasture, and are typically moved to yards for finishing. Additionally, sourcing animals from auction barns is prohibited. In fact there are approximately 115 requirements that ranchers need to meet to be certified at Step 1.

Step 2 builds on Step 1 with the same requirements but also calls for enrichments. Cattle also must be provided with structures for shelter and objects for scratching and grooming.

There is no Step 3 in the cattle standards. The purpose of Step 3 in the 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating Standards is to ensure outdoor access for farm animals. Since the program requires cattle to have access to the outdoors their entire lives, Step 3 is not relevant to them.

At Step 4, ranches must meet the pasture-centered requirement for raising cattle. The animals must spend at least 3/4 of their life on range or pasture and can only be removed due to seasonal conditions that compromise their welfare. They cannot be kept in finishing yards. Cows and calves are also kept together for at least 6 months (but it’s usually longer) before being weaned.


At Steps 5 and 5+, all physical alterations, including castration, are prohibited. This is particularly challenging here in North America where calves are nearly always castrated when they are young, but we know some of our producers are already facing this head-on. And at Step 5+, transport is prohibited, so calves must be born and spend their entire lives on one ranch. We’ll continue to support our producers as they explore ways to reach these levels.

Over 345 ranches have been certified - here are our beef producers with their associated Step-rating: Step 1 – Country Natural Beef (Natural), Creekstone, Meyer, Nature’s Harvest, Pineland, and Open Prairie Step 4 – American Grassfed, Baldwin Beef, Caldwell Family Farms, Country Natural Beef (Pasture), Cold Spring Ranch, Eel River, Grassfed Livestock Alliance, Lasater Grasslands Beef, Lowfields, Maui Cattle Company, Mountain Meadows, Panorama, Sanger, Simply Grazin’, and White Oak Pastures.

While Step-ratings do not yet cover slaughter, Whole Foods Market requires every slaughter plant to pass annual audits for animal welfare that are based on American Meat Institute’s Recommended Animal Handling Guidelines and Audit Guide written by Temple Grandin. We have tightened the requirements in a couple places, but all audits, conducted by a third party, are designed to assess and ensure good animal welfare and handling at each plant. The more you know about our meat, the better.

So next time you’re at the meat counter, consider buying Step-rated beef and tell us what you think!

Category: Meat, Animal Welfare




julia says ...
This is wonderfully amazing,Thank you!
03/04/2011 8:36:22 PM CST
M'lou Arnett says ...
This is a very good thing and thanks for the explanation. I have limited our household beef purchasing to grass fed & finished and preferably locally sourced. The steps you've outlined will enable more consumers to use the power of the purse to change the beef industry for the better.
03/05/2011 2:18:02 PM CST
Corey says ...
Love me some WFM organic, grass fed beef.
03/06/2011 8:47:36 AM CST
debbie T says ...
Thanks for your detailed explanations on the new step program. I just finished reading the other pages for chickens and pork. I was talking to one of the meat personnel at a local WF, and it's very exciting what is transpiring. I'm really looking forward to May 1st, when it'll be in full swing. also looking forward to more regulations for other food animals, like laying chickens, lamb, turkeys, etc.
03/06/2011 4:53:17 PM CST
Anna says ...
This is great news. I am so glad that Whole Foods is so forward thinking. I do not mind paying more for a quality product and feel that treating the animals humanely is well worth the price.
03/06/2011 8:27:15 PM CST
John L says ...
The beef industry has a long history of abuse, and while some play by the rules, consumers have little choice on their side. The steps you are taking are a big tell for the cattle industry as consumers prefer a better quality beef. Hope they follow your lead..
03/07/2011 6:16:11 AM CST
Elizabeth Takeuchi-Krist says ...
Excellent system - helps consumers immeasurably in making humane choices, and also is educational in the myriad ways in which the humane bar may be raised for farm animals.
03/09/2011 1:23:30 PM CST
V F says ...
How about killing the animal in a humane way such as when meet is Kosher???
03/09/2011 7:12:39 PM CST
annie says ...
I watched Food, Inc recently and have been reconsidering my family's meat sources. I knew researching meat products on the Whole Foods website would be a good resource but didn't expect to see such a thorough rating process. I have been researching local farm CSA's in my area for my meat products and was thinking how much work it was going to be to look into the farms and the criteria listed above. Happily you've already done the work behind your products and you've won my vote, to Whole Foods we go!
03/10/2011 5:17:03 AM CST
barb wood says ...
thanks so much for leading the way on this issue. i have not and will not ever eat meat because of what has been standard in the industry. Your continued leadership in setting clear standards is crucial for people who do want to do better.
03/11/2011 7:30:39 PM CST
D. Lawson says ...
I've been going to WF for over a year after watching Food,Inc. and feel better for it. My shopping habits were always healthy but once ur eyes are opened u have to make a choice. I could'nt keep feeding myself and my family things(it's not food anymore people) without looking at EVERY BITE as killing myself. I go organic whenever possible and if it's not there I'll go 365. I've try to convince others but they say "it cost to much". People YOUR HEALTH IS YOUR WEALTH!!!! You can't work if ur sick or sickly. Also AN OZ. OF PREVENTION IS WORTH A LB. OF CURE. I've heard that all my life but no one says that anymore. Why ? Because our healthcare ONLY gets paid when u are SICK!!!! Wake up people !!!! Take care of ur body so ur body can tke care of u. PEACE
03/14/2011 7:17:45 AM CDT
janet says ...
I use to shop at our town market because I love to support the locals. A few months ago a sign appeared on the meat section. All meat is from Mexico, Canada and USA. I switched over to whole foods when I learned exactly what your store was about. It's time we supported our farmers. Now, Whole foods is my new grocery store. Thank you
03/16/2011 8:13:52 AM CDT
Francesca says ...
I second VF and would like humane killing added to this process. It doesn't make me feel any better knowing that an animal was hung and drained...
04/24/2011 7:01:09 PM CDT
Mark Railsworth says ...
It all sounds good until you realize the profit incentive to cheat or fudge a little is tremendous, I've recently tried hamburger from one of the suppliers mention here since they all but sell you their hamburger as part of the overpriced into pack. That said, for a commanding price of around $12 a pound for natural ground chuck, I really didn't expect it to literally catch my grill on fire because of the huge fat content. Health-not but some companies make it sounds soooo good and sure charge a premium too. think a little more scrutiny is needed personally, especially concerning open ended categories like hamburger, if you want elite pricing then tell us specifically what your methods consist of so we don't have to assume we're getting natural organic "whatever is left over" parts for an outrageous price. Not one for over regulation but we need more and any company can work the system for excessive profits and some do unfortunately.
07/02/2011 10:17:52 PM CDT
Deanna Blanc says ...
I have not seen 5+ meat in the Philadelphia location, and have asked for it at the counter multiple times. I have moved from Cherry Hill, NJ, and miss buying groceries from the Whole Foods there. It is much larger with more selection and higher quality meat. I would think a center city location should be better, and much nicer but it is far from it. The seafood counter doesn't seem to measure up either.
09/24/2012 2:49:35 PM CDT
Mickie says ...
Is there any requirement that the livestock be fed non-GMO foods?
09/29/2012 9:58:37 AM CDT