Whole Foods: PETA’s ‘cynical, publicity-driven’ lawsuit is a waste of the court’s time and taxpayer’s money

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

PETA members protest Whole Foods in San Francisco. Picture: PETA
PETA members protest Whole Foods in San Francisco. Picture: PETA

Related tags Animal welfare Whole foods

Whole Foods Market has challenged allegations by animal rights group PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), that the standards to which it holds its meat and poultry suppliers “barely exceed common industry practices”.

According to PETA, which has filed a lawsuit* alleging Whole Foods has violated several consumer protection laws in California, the retailer's animal welfare standards “do not require better treatment for meat animals compared to the industry standard” ​and "are not actually enforced​”.

PETA: Enforcement of the GAP standards is a ‘sham’

Specifically, argues PETA, Step 1 and in some cases Step 2, 3, and 4 of the Global Animal Partnership (GAP) 5-step animal welfare standard​ that Whole Foods helped to create, merely reflect ‘standard’ practices.

For example, says PETA, broiler chickens adhering to Step One standards highlight the term ‘No cages’, despite the fact that this is the industry standard, while those adhering to step 2 highlight the term ‘no crowding’, despite the fact that density standards for step 2 suppliers are “not materially better than the industry standard rate”.

As regards lameness levels in pigs and cattle, the GAP standards are in line with or worse than industry practice, alleges PETA.

As for enforcement, meanwhile, says PETA, it's a "sham​", as audits are too infrequent (every 15 months); and pre-arranged (rather than unannounced); and firms are given too many chances, over too lengthy a period of time, to correct failings: “A supplier can be out of compliance for years without losing its certification.”

Walter Robb: Our standards are ‘the most rigorous by far of any grocer’

However, in a blog post​,co-CEO Walter Robb said that of all the companies PETA could have targeted, Whole Foods was a bizarre choice given that its animal welfare standards were ”the most rigorous–by far–of any grocer”.

Water Robb: “We have gone well above and beyond anyone else in the grocery industry [when it comes to animal welfare standards], and that fact is beyond dispute.”

Robb - who has just unveiled plans to cut 1,500 positions at Whole Foods over the next eight weeks​ - added: “Why does PETA choose to focus its venom on those who are tangibly and dramatically improving farm animal welfare by providing accountability through collaboration, transparency of production and traceability to source?

“This is a waste of both the court’s time and taxpayer money. Like the silly ‘monkey selfie’ lawsuit​ PETA filed against a photographer the same week they sued our business, PETA’s lawsuit against us is clearly designed to generate publicity while smearing our reputation.  

“As a condition of doing business with Whole Foods Market, partner farmers must affirm their commitment to our standards throughout their supply chain. And if we are informed of a potential issue on a supplier farm, we rapidly investigate to determine the facts and take appropriate action."

From 1981, when Whole Foods stopped selling meat with added hormones, to the introduction of its GAP 5 Step animal welfare rating program in 2011, he said, “We have gone well above and beyond anyone else in the grocery industry, and that fact is beyond dispute.”

PETA: Only 0.6% of Whole Foods’ 2,613 meat suppliers are at GAP step 5

However, PETA director of animal law Jared Goodman told FoodNavigator-USA that PETA had targeted Whole Foods precisely because it made such a virtue of its animal welfare credentials, but did not practice what it preached.

He added: “Step 5 is less cruel than step one, but only 0.6% or 16 of Whole Foods’ 2,613 meat suppliers are at step 5. And 95% of its chicken, pig and turkey suppliers are at step 1, 2 or 3, and most of its pork suppliers are step 1 or 2. Consumers see the marketing at the meat counter where it says step 1, no crates, no cages and no crowding, and they think that’s good, but the conditions are no better than factory farms.”

Whole Foods meat dept
A PETA investigation exposed “multiple discrepancies” between Whole Foods’ animal welfare standards and the “daily reality for pigs at Sweet Stem Farm”, a Pennsylvania-based farm which supplies Whole Foods with ‘humanely-raised’ pork, claimed the animal rights group.

Asked why PETA had waited until now to file the suit given that the GAP standards had been in place for four years, he said: “We have been raising concerns about the standards, and how Whole Foods is marketing them, for some time, and this lawsuit is the end of a long process.”

Meanwhile, a recent PETA investigation​ exposing “multiple discrepancies​” between Whole Foods’ standards and the “daily reality for pigs at Sweet Stem Farm​” (a Pennsylvania-based farm which supplies Whole Foods with ‘humanely-raised’ pork), had provided further impetus for a lawsuit, said Goodman.

Asked why PETA had taken legal action rather than raising its concerns via other means, he said PETA had had multiple conversations with Whole Foods and filed an administrative complaint in Washington DC, but failed to persuade the firm to raise its standards or market them differently.

PETA investigation into 'humanely-raised' pork

In 2015, a PETA observer worked for more than two months at Pennsylvania-based Sweet Stem Farm, LLC, which produces ‘humanely raised’ pork for Whole Foods, and is certified as a GAP ‘Step 2’ pig farm, according to the retailer’s GAP 5-Step ​standards​.

The pigs observed by PETA’s eyewitness “spent almost all their time crammed into crowded sheds on concrete floors​”, with some allotted about five square feet of floor space, claims PETA. “The only time the pigs were ever outside was when they were trucked from one shed to another, put on a scale to be weighed, or sent to slaughter. Some pigs were kept in semi-darkness deep inside a barn.”

However, Horst-Landis, Sweet Stem’s co-owner, told Bloomberg​ that PETA's account amounted to “deceit and distortion​”, although he did say scaling his facility up to take on more pigs had raised new challenges.

Whole Foods is doing better than most, says expert, but GAP scheme could be stricter

5-step GAP plan
Whole Foods was a founding member of the 5-Step Global Animal Partnership (GAP) animal welfare rating scheme

Asked whether Whole Foods was being unfairly singled out, one animal welfare expert we spoke to said it was “frustrating​” for the chain to be targeted given that it paid more attention to animal welfare issues than many retailers, and was “making an effort​”.

However, she claimed that GAP standards, especially steps one and two, were not very stringent (access to the outdoors is not a requirement, and nose rings and ear notching are permitted), and that consumers seeing the 5-step charts at Whole Foods meat counters might get a rosier picture of the conditions under which most of the animals supplying the retailer were actually reared.

And firms do not have to commit to moving up the 5-step scheme, although there are encouraged to do so, she added: “The GAP standards also don’t cover slaughtering methods.”

*The case is People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals Inc and Leah Williams et al vs Whole Foods Market Inc No. 5:15-cv-04301-NC filed in the Northern District of California on September 21.

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