There can be no question that, among all major companies in the supermarket sector, Whole Foods Market has been the leader on animal welfare. It’s typically been a first adopter of new vegetarian and vegan food products, and in the process made plant-based eating a far more mainstream and practical notion. Whole Foods has had no small part in the success of start-ups like Gardein, Hampton Creek and Beyond Meat, which got shelf space at Whole Foods and then were able to scale up and gain greater market access throughout the entire food retail sector.
Whole Foods also chose not to sell foie gras or live lobsters on animal welfare grounds, and years before any other marketplace actors, it prohibited the sale of eggs from caged hens or pork or veal from crated animals. So many subsequent decisions from major food retailers about ending the purchasing of eggs or pork from caged or crated animals got a lift from Whole Food’s success in demonstrating that such corporate policies were workable in the marketplace. In short, it said that some common agricultural and commercial fishing practices are beyond the pale and don’t deserve to be represented in the meat case or on the shelf.
But eliminating cages and crates, while an important step, doesn’t address a wide range of other animal welfare concerns in agriculture. So Whole Foods took animal welfare to a higher standard by providing the inspiration for developing a multi-tiered animal welfare rating program for the animal products sold in its stores. That five-step program, administered by an organization called the Global Animal Partnership (GAP), has set up specific standards for pigs, lambs, chickens, and other species. For example, at Level 1, there are no cages or crates for any of the animals. Level 2 requires an enriched environment. At Level 3, the animals have outdoor access. At Level 4, production is pasture-based. At Level 5, the animals are slaughtered on the farm, to avoid the stress they would go through during loading, transport, and off-loading.
This has been a labeling and marketing revolution for animal welfare, and there are now more than 300 million animals who generally have much-improved living conditions under GAP certification programs, on about 2,800 farms. Many of these farmers were already practicing these higher standards and more are joining them every day, encouraged to do so by the Whole Foods program and the promise of a market to sell their higher-welfare products in. I was pleased to join the board of GAP a few years ago to contribute not just to the animal-welfare dimensions of the program, but also to promote the program so that other supermarket chains and food sellers might adopt it and ban the worst factory farming practices from their shelves as well. While we’re hopeful that other big companies will embrace it, no other national players have as yet, making Whole Foods the unparalleled leader in animal welfare. (In full disclosure, at the time I joined the GAP board, I asked John Mackey, the co-CEO of Whole Foods Market and himself a fellow vegan, to join the board of The HSUS, and he agreed.)
Whole Foods operates with a similar philosophy to The HSUS: we want people to think about their food choices and make better choices for themselves, animals, the planet, and farmers. We want people to eat a larger share of plant-based foods to reduce the number of animals in factory farms and slaughter plants, but the reality is that most people are going to continue to eat meat, drink milk, and eat eggs for many years to come. Yet, except for GAP and a few much smaller programs, there is little in the marketplace to give consumers guidance in making more humane choices. Whole Foods is making sure that there are higher welfare products in the marketplace, so people can advance that principle in the marketplace, and so farmers who adhere to higher animal welfare standards have an opportunity to connect with consumers through their food purchases.
For any vegan, Whole Foods gives more options than any other major outlet. For any meat eater, it also gives more options – offering up as many as five varieties of products, all meeting a baseline standard and then allowing consumers to reach for higher standards. The system encourages farmers to move to higher levels of welfare standards, too, with so many of them improving their practices so they can sell at Levels 3, 4, or even 5, and do even better for animals.
This is why I am troubled that PETA has chosen to sue Whole Foods in an apparent attempt to undermine or call into question the value of the GAP program. This is counterproductive, especially in a marketplace where there are dozens of other chains nearly exclusively selling factory farm animal products. Not one of them has done as much as Whole Foods has to promote more plant-based eating and to advance farm animal welfare and fight factory farming in very practical terms.
Animal protection imperatives are best served when groups in our field call out the laggards and the obstructionists on animal welfare. Whole Foods, on the other hand, is a best actor, and there’s a very tangible record over many years to demonstrate that truth.