Whole Foods Deserves Whole Praise for Anti-Factory Farming Leadership

By on September 28, 2015 with 23 Comments By Wayne Pacelle

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.

Farm Animals

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  1. Jan says:

    This is why I shop at Whole Foods. While I have stopped eating meat, I still eat eggs and dairy; and while I transition to more dairy-free alternatives for example, I buy the most cruel-free I can for dairy and eggs and the choices for this are the best at Whole Foods. Also, even though I’m done with meat, my husband is not, so when I do shop for him, at least I buy the highest I can on the GAP scale.

    • anne says:

      That’s excellent on your food choices. But also eating any type of animal products still requires a lot of land and water and of course the waste on soil. So this is not very sustainable for the environment and even though animals are pasture raised, they are still put through slaughter. Nowadays where there is so much information out there and countless vegan options, there is not reason to eat living beings, who are not much different than we are. I care for the environment and the animals and will not support the industry that profits from the slaughter of sentient beings and the environmental disaster on our planet.

      • matt says:

        It doesn’t matter if its meat or vegan products. The environment is still going to get damaged by building factories for the vegan produces. The farmers still need to use machines to grow the product. Witch puts gas into the air. They need energy witch also uses oil. plants are living things and animals are not similar to human beings. you live in a house. your house use to be a living space for animals until us as humans built on there land. so your saying we should live like animals because us as humans are always destroying animals habitats and its going to keep on happening as long as the population keeps growing.

    • Sherri Petrovic says:

      What brand of eggs and cheese do you buy at Whole Foods? Do you buy “humanely raised”? If so what brand.

    • Alex Peacock says:

      What kind of cheese and milk are you buying? I’m going vegetarian as well but still will have milk, cream and cheese in my life but I want to support humane processes of getting this.

  2. Holland VanDieren says:

    I’m an ethical vegan supporter of both HSUS and PeTA. As such, I’d love to see some real heft put behind Whole Foods’ GAP program, with more frequent pop inspections and tough repercussions for vendors who do not comply. Yes, I’d much prefer the World of Vegan Humanity that PeTA embraces, but till that day we have to do everything we can to improve the harsh realities farmed animals endure.

    • Jenna Miles says:

      PETA doesn’t object to better conditions for animals, only Whole Foods telling the public that animal products can ever be humane.

    • matt says:

      We need to have more pop up inspections everywhere not just on the farms that whole foods works with. The other market chains are getting away with murder. PeTA needs to stop messing with whole foods and work on the whole picture. They are out for the money not the animal rights. That’s why they choose to pick on wholefoods.

  3. Robert Goldman says:

    I love both HSUS and PETA and do appreciate Whole Foods. I am disappointed to learn that PETA has chosen to sue Whole Foods because the GAP program is not perfect. It would be much better to continue the focus on educating people, while challenging the really bad actors and drawing massive attention to the horror they are inflicting on so many innocent, vulnerable animals. PETA would be wise to not allow the pursuit of perfection to get in the way of doing good.

  4. Suzana Megles says:

    Regrettably there is no Whole Foods Store near me, but I am just so impressed with the management and their humane stances for the animals. God bless them, and I’m sure He has.

  5. Chris says:

    They have been caught misleading the public about their animal welfare standards a couple of times. How many other times are there abuses that don’t get caught? In the end whenever animals are seen as commodities and money is changing hands there is going to be chances for people to cut corners and the animals will be the ones hurt by that.

  6. Jennie Taylor Martin says:

    I think you’re missing the point of the lawsuit, which was not to say that Whole Foods doesn’t do a lot for vegans, but to say it is misrepresenting what it is doing (and charging for) in the meat industry. I think it’s a fair and eye-opening lawsuit that has already done a lot to further expose the truth of the “animals raised for food and money” industry. HSUS should take a look at PETA’s findings instead of pointing the finger at them. Devisiveness will you get you nowhere and only makes it look like you are in some kind of agreement with Whole Foods that requires this supportive blog that does not even address the animal cruelty found by PETA.

  7. Jack Bloomberg says:

    I shop at WPM in Cupertino, CA and dispute Connie…. New Leaf in Santa Cruz in now a New Season owned company and not local.. Their offerings are not even close to WFM plus they carry conventional items as well. WF in Cupertino is about a 50K Square Feet with a meat dept and seafood dept that is small compared to the size of the store… the Prepared Foods Dept has a ton of items and one of the best hot bars around. I will miss that store since I’m relocating to a town in Ohio. that doesn’t have one.. I am going to lobby for them to build one there.
    WF to me goes above and beyond to do things right. It takes time to get the message across.. lets talk about the Safeway’s of the world and their commitment on animal welfare. NONE!

  8. Nick says:

    Thanks for the article, Wayne, a few questions:
    – what is your definition of “Factor Farm”? This is a loose term that is different with everyone and every perception – I’m interested in how you define it.
    – you mention their vegan food in the first paragraph, yet the article is about animal welfare… animal welfare isn’t an issue for vegan food. Is your thesis about animal welfare in their procurement, or their procurement policy itself?


  9. Rosemary Marshall says:

    The factory farming industry must be joyous at PETA attacking a favoured retailer. This sort of publicity is ridiculous when there are so many appalling things being done to animals in the USA. I cannot believe it could not have been solved by a meeting with John Mackay and Wayne Pacelle. Come on PETA this is not the way to move forward.

  10. Barbara Glick says:

    As a (former) donor to HSUS, I am deeply troubled by your support of Whole Foods rather than PETA. Their investigation couldn’t be more compelling.
    Animals suffer lives of torture for so that people can eat massive amounts of animals and their products at cheap prices, so that corporations such as Whole Foods and all the others involved in this evil industry can make large profits. In addition, human workers are poorly treated in this business.
    PETA’s investigation of the pig farm is not the first time Whole Foods has been caught in their lies. There was the egg farm that was exposed as well. This is standard practice. Animals are not given the treatment they deserve on any farm but one that values their lives and is not raising them for slaughter.
    It is time to wake up and realize that true humanity means not causing terror and suffering to innocent sentient beings.
    The GAP program is a scam that justifies and makes acceptable this horror.

  11. Careena Patel says:

    I have donated to PETA in the past, but if this is where they are going to put their resources, I cannot ever donate to PETA again. I am thankful that my far larger support has gone to the Global animal partnership, and am a long-time customer of Whole Foods because they do so much to promote animal welfare in farms. PETA has a bad reputation for being extreme and irrational and this is them deserving that criticism. It is very counter-productive for them to attack the very people that have supported the animal welfare cause

  12. Orlando Torres says:

    Sorry HSUS, but I have to disagree with you on this one. Allowing the “humane myth” to be promoted will not help animals, it will only help consumers feel less guilty about killing innocent baby animals.

  13. Dan Stevens says:

    I support HSUS and the GAPS program, but your blog does NOT answer the allegations. It does not seem like the GAPS program is well-managed, and there aren’t consequences for bad actors. If true, that is a deceptive practice and undermines what you are trying to do. Be honest, come clean about mistakes, and get rid of bad farms or lose the battle by losing the confidence and respect of consumers, meat eaters and not.

  14. JG says:


  15. Dave Walls says:

    Anyone following a vegan or vegetarian diet could shop at these alternatives: farmers markets, Adventist health food stores and online retailers that don’t sell any meat. You can also start a garden, and even use hydroponic or aeroponic growing systems indoors. That way, you’ll really be supporting a humane future. If you talk to vendors at farmers markets. some only grow fruit and/or veggies.

  16. Shelley Sykes says:

    I am disappointed in the HSUS. From what I understand, there are those farms that purport to raise farm animals humanely when, in fact, their conditions mimic those of standard factory farms. Anyone can lie. As long as they are not monitored, no one is the wiser. Whole Foods/Amazon needs to be accountable. Shame on HSUS, the H is supposed to stand for “humane” and I do not see that represented here.

  17. Linda Z says:

    I’ve been buying meat/poultry at Whole Foods for years and just learned about this controversy. I’m sad and embarrassed to think that I was fooled by Whole Foods — the GAPS program seems to be just another clever marketing scheme.

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