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March 2005
A Whole New Alternative?
‘Compassionate’ Meat at Whole Foods


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 Animal Compassion 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 are raised without added hormones or antibiotics, and their producers are required to pass a strict animal welfare audit annually. Vegan CEO, John Mackey, wants to take 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 Animal Compassion logo.

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 Ornelas, 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 Foundation.
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. Whole Foods 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 to change.

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 they 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 their own.

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 cows for meat.

Will the standards be for all animal products?
LO: It’s their meat department. It will also include dairy, eggs, seafood, and lobsters.

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 be treated 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, confinement, 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 bones break, 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 slaughter 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 do you 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, Whole 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 switch their 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 than buy 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 To learn more about VIVA-USA and PETA go to and


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