Jumped into rabbits in 2014
CHARLOTTE, North Carolina––Whole Foods Market’s year-long effort to sell skinned and dismembered rabbits as a “whole” food is near an ignominious end.
The rabbit promotion “ultimately revealed the sales volume did not justify the continuation or expansion of the pilot to a national program,” according to an undated and unsigned statement on the Whole Foods Market web page.
“We expect all remaining product will be sold through by January 2016,” the Whole Foods Market message said.
Quickly claiming victory, the Rabbit Advocacy Network, House Rabbit Society, and SaveABunny, “on behalf of tens of thousands of house rabbit lovers,” in a September 15, 2015 media release declared themselves “thrilled to announce the end of rabbit meat sales at Whole Foods Market.”
Whole Foods Market began experimentally selling rabbit meat in June 2014. The Rabbit Advocacy Network, House Rabbit Society, and SaveABunny responded with protests outside of Whole Foods Market stores and an online petition.
“A House Rabbit Society member and long-time Whole Foods shareholder,” whom Rabbit Advocacy Network founder Tara Baxter declined to name, “traveled 800 miles to attend the annual Whole Foods Market Shareholders Meeting in Charlotte, North Carolina today to speak on behalf of the bunnies being killed for the grocery chain’s meat case,” the September 15, 2015 rabbit advocacy groups’ media release continued.
There, the House Rabbit Society representative “was told by Whole Foods’ chief operating officer A.C. Gallo that Whole Foods had decided to cease the sales of all rabbits by the end of 2015,” the release said.
“Pets before profits”
Said House Rabbit Society president Margo DeMello, “We thank Whole Foods for putting pets before profits. We hope that other grocery chains will follow in Whole Foods’ footsteps, and make a similar decision: that rabbits, or any pets, are not a viable meat.”
The 2012 American Pet Products Association Pet Owners Survey indicated that rabbits are now kept by 2.5 million U.S. households, who had about 6.7 rabbits among them.
But the U.S. Pet Ownership & Demographics Sourcebook, 2012 edition, published by the American Veterinary Medical Association, noted that “households with rabbits dropped 25%” since 2006.
The Rabbit Advocacy Network, House Rabbit Society, and SaveABunny campaign against Whole Food Market rabbit sales on November 16, 2014 drew sympathy from activists across a spectrum of causes when Food Empowerment Project founder and executive director Lauren Ornelas was put under citizen’s arrest while pamphleting by the manager of the Whole Foods Market franchise in Sebastopol, California.
“The store manager had complained to police, and when the officer did not make the arrest, the manager chose to make a citizen’s arrest,” said a House Rabbit Society media release at the time.
Then in May 2015 the Whole Foods Market rabbit promotion attracted the notice of the NBC Bay Area Investigative Team, including two-time Emmy Award winner Vicky Nguyen, Liza Meak and Felipe Escamilla.
Narrated Nguyen, “The Investigative Unit obtained USDA inspection reports for Iowa Rabbit, the farm that supplies Whole Foods Market with its rabbit meat. An analysis of the reports and a review of what are believed to be internal sales numbers show that consumer demand and animal welfare may both be much lower than what Whole Foods has suggested.
“Whole Foods Market obtains its rabbits from a farm called Iowa Rabbit,” Nguyen continued. “Through the Freedom of Information Act, the Investigative Unit obtained inspection records for the farm. Included in those records are the numbers of rabbits that were found either ‘dead in the yard’ or ‘dead on arrival’ before they were slaughtered. Many days, none were dead. But on a single day in March, 30 were ‘dead in the yard. In July, 38 were ‘dead on arrival’ in a single day.”
Nguyen pointed out that lack of other particulars left the context of the data vague. “The actual rate of rabbit deaths is unclear,” Nguyen explained, “because Iowa Rabbit declined to share the total number of rabbits processed on those days.”
But Nguyen also noted that, “The USDA sent a ‘letter of caution’ warning Iowa Rabbit for sending out multiple cartons of rabbit meat improperly labeled as USDA inspected when they were not. That prompted the plant to issue a voluntary recall.”
Comparing the USDA reports with Whole Food Markets claims, Nguyen found that “Whole Foods says that ‘no crates, cages or tethers’ are permitted from its rabbit suppliers, but in a February 2015 report, USDA inspectors observed ‘wet rabbits in bottom crates.’ The inspectors wrote, ‘This is a concern both as an animal welfare issue, and as a sanitary dressing issue.’ Whole Foods has also said that ‘food and water are always available’ for the rabbits it purchases. But in a January 2015 report, inspectors found ‘rabbits overnighted in crates during cold weather’ had no access to water because the water sources ‘tended to freeze.’”
Iowa Rabbit responded that the reports the NBC Investigative Unit obtained “are incomplete because they only contain observations made by the USDA but do not include the actions taken by our company in response to those observations.”
But Iowa Rabbit did not share with Nguyen what those actions were.
The Rabbit Advocacy Network meanwhile said it had obtained from a source within Whole Foods Markets figures showing that the 41 northern California franchises sold an average of just five rabbits per week.
Reported Nguyen, “The NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit went undercover to stores all over the Bay Area to see if they carried rabbit meat. Almost all of them did, but employees admitted they weren’t big sellers. Whole Foods declined to provide NBC Bay Area with actual numbers quantifying the demand for rabbit meat. They also declined interview requests to ask about the USDA inspection reports.”
Selling meat since 1980
The largest retailer of natural and organic foods in the world, Whole Foods Market has sold meat products since 1980.
“My first store was called Safer Way,” Whole Foods Market founder John Mackey told Amanda Griscom Little of Grist in 2004. 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 concern about animal welfare, Mackey in 2004 introduced husbandry standards for producers of ducks, sheep, pigs, and cattle raised for beef, and formed the Animal Compassion Foundation to administer the standards.
“Pilot standards for rabbits”
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. Standards for bison, turkeys, goats, and sheep have been added since 2013.
Whole Foods Market claimed to have created “Pilot Animal Welfare Standards for Rabbits,” but the rabbit standards were not mentioned in a “Pilot GAP Policy Manual” issued on June 2, 2014, “effective September 1, 2014.”
The GAP standards have 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. Some of the standards have, however, been updated since they were first introduced.