Whole New Alternative?
‘Compassionate’ Meat at
Whole Foods Market could
be considered both friend and foe to the activist community. On the
one hand, it’s a major grocer offering a large
selection of vegetarian foods, vegan novelties, and cruelty-free products.
It has brought organic and natural products to the mainstream and is
working towards greening its maintenance operations through energy
efficiency and waste reduction practices. On the other hand, it has
an anti-union policy and as a large corporation it has been viewed
as threatening the survival of smaller local food webs like coops,
farmers’ markets, and smaller natural foods stores.
Earlier this year, Whole Foods Market announced the launch of the
Foundation to “provide education and research services to assist and inspire
ranchers and meat producers around the world to achieve a higher standard of
farm animal quality of life.” On January 25, 2005, Whole Foods donated
five percent of the day’s sales to the Animal Compassion Foundation,
raising $550,000 of seed money.
According to Whole Foods, they currently have the highest meat standards
in the industry. Animals are fed a diet free of all animal byproducts and
without added hormones or antibiotics, and their producers are required to
pass a strict animal welfare audit annually. Vegan CEO, John Mackey, wants
it one step further: “By creating the Foundation, Whole Foods Market is
pioneering an entirely new way for people to relate to farm animals—with
the animals’ welfare becoming the most important goal.” Whole
Foods Market is hoping to develop these improved standards for animal welfare
by 2008 working with in-house meat experts, and animal welfare and animal
advocacy groups. Meat adhering to these standards will be labeled with the
The launch of this foundation, however, has caused mixed reactions among
activists. While the initiative is designed to minimize animal suffering
and encourage a
drastic improvement in how animals are treated nationwide, it is still difficult
to accept it as ‘animal compassionate’—many feel only an
animal-free label is worthy of that name.
A few animal advocates have been given a unique opportunity to work with Whole
Foods Market on these initiatives and offer a voice for the animals. Lauren
Executive Director of Vegetarian International Voice for Animals-USA (VIVA-USA)
and Bruce Friedrich, Director of Vegan Campaigns for People for the Ethical Treatment
of Animals (PETA), shared their perspectives with Sangamithra Iyer on the background
and goals of these efforts and why their organizations are participating in the
creation of these standards. Whole Foods Market declined to comment at this time.
Lauren, I’d like to first ask you about your initial campaign
against Whole Foods Market and how that led to the creation of the Animal Compassion
Lauren Ornelas: We started our duck campaign in September
of 2000, targeting grocery stores that were selling duck meat from the farms
we investigated, Maple
Leaf Farms and their subsidiary Woodland Farms, and a company call Grimaud
Farms. Our campaign targeted Trader Joe’s, Wal-Mart super centers,
and Whole Foods.
I’m from Texas, which is where Whole Foods is based, so I’ve always
had an affection for it. It was the only place in Texas that I could find vegan
food. When we first contacted them, I pretty much thought that they would do
the right thing. They’ve got this whole mission, this reputation of
caring about the environment, caring about the humane treatment of animals.
is a company that stopped selling foie gras way before anyone else because
of the inhumane treatment of animals. So I gave them a decent amount of time
At their shareholders meeting in New York in 2001, Whole Foods stated that
they would stop buying duck meat from Maple Leaf and Woodland Farms, however
continued to buy from Grimaud Farms. Later that year, Trader Joe’s stopped
selling all duck meat because of our campaign. Once we won Trader Joe’s,
we put all our energy into Whole Foods.
In March 2003, I was able to speak at their annual shareholders meeting in
Santa Monica. Things didn’t go so well at this meeting. I went up and spoke to
the CEO, John Mackey, after the meeting and we had a slight discussion and he
gave me his email address. I emailed him and tried to have a dialogue. This went
back and forth for a few days, and finally he just said we are not going agree,
this is going to be my last email to you. I accepted that, wrote him one last
response, and let it go. Then about six months later—by October 2003—I
received an email from him telling me that after we had our discussions, he read
a lot of books and went vegan and that Whole Foods was going to revamp how all
of their animals raised for food were treated starting with the ducks. That’s
basically how it began.
They decided to have meetings and we suggested a number of animal groups
to participate with the scientists, farmers and the Whole Foods people and
discuss how these
animals should be treated. They decided to create the Animal Compassion Foundation
because we continued to find that there wasn’t a lot of information about
what is best for the animals. So many studies are based on productivity—how
to fatten the animal, how to make them grow faster, or a profit—versus
what was in the best interest of the welfare of the animal. So they decided
to create a foundation, where they would have people looking into this on
What role does PETA hope to play in the development of these standards?
Bruce Friedrich: Right now we’re trying to ensure that farmed animals are
treated as well as dogs or cats until they’re killed, and that they’re
killed in the least cruel way possible.
You just returned from meetings with Whole
Foods, Lauren. What’s
the current status of standards for the animals?
LO: So far, we’ve met and completed the duck standards. We’ve done
pigs standards, which do not allow for gestation crates, farrowing crates,
or tail docking. We are still finishing the lambs, and we just started the
Will the standards be for all animal products?
LO: It’s their meat department. It will also include dairy, eggs, seafood,
I was surprised to see that Whole Foods currently sells veal. The calves are
not in crates or tethered, but as you know there is still considerable suffering
and cruelty inherent in the veal industry (deprivation of mother, mother’s
deprivation of child, anemia, short lifespan). Do you hope that the Animal
Compassion logo would preclude certain meat products like veal?
BF: The veal and dairy industries seem to me to be inherently cruel, so quite
possibly. But sending people to other markets is probably not in the animals’ best
interests. If people are going to buy dairy and veal, at least with Whole Foods
they will know exactly what they’re supporting. It will be interesting
to see how the discussions of dairy and veal proceed.
What made VIVA-USA, a vegan advocacy organization, decide to participate in
these welfare reforms?
LO: It is a real challenging situation. John Mackey and I are in touch a lot
now, and he understands that it is incredibly difficult for me in terms of
the fact that we are a vegan organization. We’ve never done anything like this
before and I can’t imagine we’d ever do anything like this again.
Welfare reforms are not anything that VIVA-USA works on, however I don’t
think anyone has ever seen anything like what Whole Foods is trying to do. It’s
nothing like ‘let’s make the cage bigger.’ It’s above
and beyond that. What Whole Foods is doing, saying that the ducks have to have
water to swim in, is just unimaginable. It is what is natural for the duck. People
just assume that ducks have these things, but in factory farms they don’t
have anything like that. And right now, when we are doing our campaign against
Albertsons to stop selling their duck meat from factory farms, we are able
to point to another grocery store chain that will not allow the animals to
badly and all of this is being done because of consumer pressure, because consumers
do not want animals to be treated inhumanely. Other organizations, animal organizations,
industry groups, have been trying to create standards, but in my opinion, unfortunately,
they still seem to be part of the system.
How would you like to see the Animal Compassion logo differ from USDA standards
for free-range and the Humane Certification from Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC)?
BF: The USDA allows anything, no matter how horrific, as long as there is a
business need. The HFAC, while the best thing going now, still allows mutilations,
and archaic poultry slaughter. The goal of the Whole Foods standards is to,
in every situation except for the fact of slaughter, put the animals’ interests
first. Even with slaughter, the goal is to make the process painless.
What are your thoughts for improvement for transport and slaughter?
BF: As discussed above, anything you couldn’t legally do to a dog or a
cat, you should not be allowed to do to a cow, pig, chicken, duck, or other farmed
animal. There are many changes that we would like to see in transport—for
example, the use of electric prods should be eliminated during loading and
unloading, chickens should not be thrown into crates so roughly that their
animals should not be crowded onto trucks and shipped during intemperate weather,
animals should be given access to clean food and water during transport, and
they should not have to travel long distances to reach the slaughterhouse.
In slaughter, cameras need to be used and monitored; in addition to inspectors,
slaughter lines need to be slowed way down, and birds should be slaughtered
using Controlled Atmosphere Killing. We actually have the technology to make
entirely painless for all farmed animals, but for a variety of reasons, slaughter
remains horrendously cruel and terrifying for almost all farmed animals today.
What would you say to folks who may think it’s contradictory
to use words like animal compassion to describe commercial meat?
BF: I’d agree with the fact that it’s contradictory—eating
meat is eating a corpse for no reason but gluttony, so yes calling eating meat
compassionate is bad diction. We’d prefer that it be called “Animal
not so horrifically cruel” rather than “Animal Compassionate,” but
we’re more interested in actually making a difference for the animals involved
and we’re willing to give a bit on semantics.
As a vegan, has participating in these meetings been difficult for you?
LO: There are times in the meetings when I sit there and remind myself we are
talking about killing these animals. I just sit there and I say ‘I don’t
know if I can do this anymore.’ I pull back a little bit. I think that
the people at Whole Foods understand that. Obviously we are a vegan organization
and don’t advocate the consumption of animals, but lets’ say right
now with the ducks, why would we target someone like Whole Foods for selling
duck meat, when the ducks have water and aren’t mutilated, whereas Alberstons
is selling ducks who have the tips of their bills cut off and no access to water
to even immerse their head? It’s a matter of where we put our priorities
and we are always going to target the ones that are doing more egregious cruelty,
because those are the ones we can get the public to agree to. Those are the
things we can actually do to make a difference.
As an animal advocacy organization, do you feel that it is antithetical
to be working towards standards that may alleviate consumers’ guilt when
buying commercial meat?
BF: Put yourself in a chicken’s place today: Would you prefer to live in
the horror you’re in, bred to grow seven times as quickly as is natural
so that your bones splinter and your organs collapse, or would you prefer to
be able to live without chronic pain? Would you prefer to be scalded to death
or euthanized? We really should not, as animal rights supporters, suggest treating
animals horribly as an advocacy tool! People who believe in animal rights can’t
trade away animal welfare for some intangible goal.
From an ethical, animal welfare and environmental perspective, it would be
desirable to see the number of animals slaughtered each year decline. Ultimately
think these standards will yield that result?
LO: I tend to not look at things in numbers so much. I think it will definitely
reduce animal suffering. And that’s key—making sure animals don’t
suffer. I do think by having something out there where people are being forced
to question how animals are raised in factory farms or raised for food in general
will discourage people from consuming them. And hopefully them being discouraged
in a place that also sells vegan food will just make it easier for them to
make the switch.
Are you aware of any initiatives of Whole Foods market that would advocate
a plant-based diet?
BF: John Mackey has gone vegan, speaks eloquently about his veganism, and Whole
Foods will be producing a vegetarian brochure with an introduction by John
Mackey advocating the diet and offering recipes. Also and equally impressive,
Foods will be producing a video that documents its raising and slaughter methods,
compared to standard methods. Once people are confronted even with animals
treated very well on a video, we are sure that huge numbers will choose to
diets—as they start to realize just what meat is. Whole Foods is clearly
putting its money and clout where its mouth is.
Oftentimes when people ask me about veganism, they tend to ask “what about
free-range or humane certified?” because they believe these are good consumer
choices. Often my response is about the shortcomings of these labels when it
comes to strict definitions, humane treatment, or enforcement. When these new
standards come into place, how would you respond, as a vegan advocate, when someone
asks “well what about the Animal Compassion logo, is it okay if I buy
my meat at Whole Foods?”
LO: That’s a good question. I definitely do not want to take away from
what Whole Foods is doing in the sense that it shames every other producer out
there, every single grocery store chain and fast food place, that they are going
to make such sweeping changes and make the lives of farmed animals less bad than
they currently are. But I would do what I normally do, which is tell them, if
you care about animals the best thing you can do is simply not to eat them. Then
you get to people, like let’s say my mom. I’ve been vegan since 1987,
and she’s not changing. She’s not budging in terms of consuming
animals, but she cares about animals. I would rather her support Whole Foods
from KFC or a regular grocery store.
If I’m given the choice, I want it to be on the side of less suffering,
but I definitely would always push veganism first. There is no way our planet
can sustain factory farming or animal consumption to the level that we currently
do, so that’s why we need to put our time and energy into promoting veganism.
For more information on the Animal Compassion Foundation, visit www.animalcompassionfoundation.org.
To learn more about VIVA-USA and PETA go to www.vivausa.org and www.peta.org.