RICHMOND, California––Are skinned and dismembered rabbits “whole foods”?
Whole Foods Market sells them, along with other meat, much to the disgust and outrage of SaveABunny Inc. founder and executive director Marcy Schaaf and House Rabbit Society president Margo DeMello.
Schaaf and DeMello organize dprotests against the sale of rabbit meat held on August 17, 2014 outside more than 40 Whole Foods Market stores nationwide.
SaveABunny, founded in 1999, rehabilitates and rehomes rabbits who have been surrendered to animal shelters. The 8,000-member House Rabbit Society, founded in 1988, coordinates a network of rabbit foster caregivers and represents the interests of people who keep rabbits as pets
“According to the 2012 American Pet Products Association survey, 2.5 million households now live with pet rabbits,” SaveABunny and the House Rabbit Society said in a joint media release about the protests.
“A phone survey conducted of 39 Northern California Whole Foods Market Stores revealed that only one of 39 store managers interviewed were aware that they were selling meat from domestic rabbit breeds,” the SaveABunny/House Rabbit Society release continued. “Most believed the meat came from either wild rabbits or from New Zealand. Most employees said they were very unhappy about the decision––especially those employees who have shared their lives with pet rabbits along with cats and dogs.”
Further, said SaveABunny and the House Rabbit Society, “Whole Foods Market has repeatedly declined to explain the contradiction in their decision to kill rabbits while promoting products not tested on the very same type of rabbits.”
Third most popular companion mammal
Elaborated the House Rabbit Society, in a separate handout entitled “Tell Whole Foods to Stop Killing Bunnies!”, “We estimate that there are anywhere from six to nine million pet rabbits in the United States, and we know that they are America’s third most popular companion mammal. This compares to 886,841 rabbits slaughtered by USDA-inspected facilities in 2002. In 2007, that number was 979,563. Since the USDA only inspects about 25% of rabbit processors, those numbers are at least three times higher, and Whole Foods aims to increase them further. Whole Foods Market, with over 370 stores, is the 99th largest retail chain in the world, and in the U.S. is only outranked by Walmart, Kroger, Safeway, Supervalu, Publix, and HEB. By adding rabbit meat to Whole Foods stores, the company is both creating and inflating a demand for rabbit meat, meaning that hundreds of thousands––or even millions––more rabbits will be killed every year…Whole Foods, a store shopped at by millions of consumers who care about animals and don’t want them to be harmed, will now be adding, for the first time ever, a widely beloved pet to their meat cases..The rabbits raised for meat are exactly the same as the rabbits living in our homes, snoozing on our couches, begging for treats in the kitchen, and trading nose bonks with the family cat.”
“Our customers have long been asking us to sell rabbit,” Whole Foods Global Quality Standards Team spokesperson Liz Fry told Mike Aldax of theRichmond Standard in a prepared statement. “So we began a rigorous four-year process to complete and implement standards that address the welfare issues in rabbit production.” Those standards, said Fry, “include more than 75 species-specific requirements that ensure the overall health and well-being of the animals.”
Whole Foods Market earlier shared copies of their “Pilot Animal Welfare Standards for Rabbits” with activist Lisa Rockwell, whose online petition against Whole Foods selling rabbit meat netted more than 10,000 signatures. Said Rockwell, “I was horrified to see rabbit meat at my local Whole Foods. It was offensive and condescending for Whole Foods Markets to send me a form letter about their standards. Standards are not the issue. They are selling the meat of pet breed rabbits, just like mine.”
Alleged Schaaf, “Whole Foods Market has jeopardized its brand image and betrayed the trust of their loyal customer base with greenwashing and a lack of transparency to customers and employees about the type of rabbit meat being butchered. There is likely higher demand not to sell rabbit meat. Whole Foods is killing and selling the meat of eight-week-old baby bunnies who are barely weaned and are still deeply connected to their mothers and siblings. There is nothing humane about this.”
“Their animal welfare standards are minimal at best,” charged DeMello. “Whole Foods Market is sourcing the rabbits in states with ag-gag laws that restrict outside inspection and verification of standards. The company has not allowed animal welfare advocates to confirm their claims and standards. This should greatly concern their customers.”
Selling meat since 1980
The largest retailer of natural and organic foods in the world, Whole Foods Market has sold meat from other species since 1980.
“If you speak to the totally pure, you will cease to exist as a business,” founder John Mackey told Amanda Griscom Little of Grist in 2004. “My first store was called Safer Way,” Mackey recalled. “I opened it in 1978. It was a vegetarian store. We did $300,000 in sales the first year. When we made the decision to open a bigger store, we made a decision to sell meat, seafood, beer, wine, and coffee. We didn’t think they were particularly healthy products, but we are a whole food store, not a holy food store.”
Responding to rising public concern about the welfare of farmed animals, Mackey in 2004 introduced husbandry standards for producers of ducks, sheep, pigs, and cattle raised for beef, and incorporated the Animal Compassion Foundation to administer the standards. The Animal Compassion Foundation in November 2010 became the Global Animal Partnership, introducing a five-step system of identifying how pigs, cattle, and chickens killed for meat were raised. A turkey standard was added in July 2011. The chicken standards were updated in October 2012, with the update taking effect in April 2013.
The “Pilot Animal Welfare Standards for Rabbits” are not mentioned in a “Pilot GAP Policy Manual” issued on June 2, 2014, “effective September 1, 2014.” But the GAP web site says, “Currently, we are developing 5-Step standards for other animals.”
The GAP standards also do not cover transport and slaughter, or egg-laying hens, despite promises first issued in December 2010 and several times reiterated that, “We will be developing standards for other components, including breeding and slaughter. We are already working on creating 5-Step standards for egg-laying hens and will be developing standards for other species soon.”
The GAP board includes Humane Society of the U.S. president Wayne Pacelle, Compassion in World Farming representative Leah Garces, and Steven Gross, who heads Farm Forward and has done consulting for PETA. Farm Forward was paid $85,117 by GAP for “management” services in 2012. World Society for the Protection of Animals director general Mike Baker was formerly on the GAP board, but no longer is.
Pacelle and Whole Foods co-CEO Walter Robb in April 2014 jointly honored California governor Jerry Brown “at the first of our series of celebratory events commemorating the HSUS’ 60th anniversary,” Pacelle blogged afterward. As recently as June 25, 2014, Pacelle praised Whole Foods Market in a blog posting for “providing opportunities for their customers to act on their values in the marketplace––on issues ranging from factory farming to animal testing to fur selling.”
The GAP web site formerly claimed that “As of June 29, 2012, 1,945 operations, raising more than 140 million animals annually, have been audited and certified to our higher welfare Step standards by independent, third-party certification companies.” Participation statistics no longer appear.
GAP has been criticized by representatives of other animal welfare standards certification agencies, including Humane Farm Animal Care and Animal Welfare Approved, for lacking a mechanism to encourage producers to improve after winning entry level certification at steps one and two––which, the agribusiness magazine Feedstuffs has noted, differ little from industry norms.
GAP data released in February 2011 showed that 81% of the chicken producers and 85% of the pig producers in the program were admitted at steps one and two. Including beef cattle producers, 72% of all GAP-certified producers were at the lowest steps—and these appeared to be the producers who raised the most animals.
80% of GAP income in 2011 and 93% in 2012 came from Whole Foods Markets, according to IRS Form 990.
Whole Foods Markets in 2006 quit selling live soft-shelled crabs and lobsters. “We place as much emphasis on the importance of humane treatment and quality of life for all animals as we do on the expectations for quality and flavor,” Mackey told Liz Austin of Associated Press.
But some Whole Food Market purchasing decisions may not have improved animal welfare. Trans-oceanic shipments of livestock have been a well-recognized animal welfare problem for decades. In 2004, when Hawaii Ranchers first sold cattle to County Natural Beef, a major Whole Food Market supplier, 34,000 calves were shipped alive to the U.S. mainland. By 2008, the shipments had increased to 41,000 calves. Over the five years 2004-2008, calves accounted for slightly more than 90% of all live cattle shipments from Hawaii.
Bell & Evans
The value of industry-sponsored animal welfare audits was meanwhile called into question by video obtained by a Compassion Over Killing undercover investigator at the Bell & Evans chicken hatchery in Fredericksburg, Pennsylvania, released in October 2013. A supplier to Whole Foods Markets, “Bell & Evans has long presented itself as a pioneer in the natural and organic foods movement and says it raises its chickens on a vegetarian diet free of antibiotics,” observed Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer Allison Steele. “In 2010, Bell & Evans became one of two premium chicken producers in the country to start rendering chickens unconscious with carbon dioxide gas before killing them, lessening the animals’ pain.”
Bell & Evans advertises that “all of our chickens are humanely raised and compassionately handled, in a minimal-stress environment, throughout their lives,” and says newly hatched chicks are “carefully sorted from their shells, and placed in protective delivery baskets headed for the farm.”
But this was, “not what we saw,” said Compassion Over Killing director Erica Meier. Instead, the video showed chicks being dropped on conveyor belts. Injured chicks were fed alive into a grinder.
The Bell & Evans incident followed another embarrassment for Whole Foods involving poultry, recalled Stephanie Strom of The New York Times. Wrote Strom, “Whole Foods in May 2013 recalled two types of curried chicken salad that had been sold in some of its stores in the Northeast. The retailer’s kitchens had accidentally confused a batch of ‘chick’n’ salad made with a plant protein substitute with one made from real chicken, and reversed the labels.”