PETA vs. Whole Foods — Essential Exposé or a Misguided Lawsuit?

By Morgan Yaeger

It is no secret that Whole Foods prides itself on sourcing sustainably farmed produce and “humanely” raised meat. In fact, if you’ve ever walked into a Whole Foods, chances are you have been practically blinded by their large, brightly colored signs boasting these practices. This is all part of the Whole Foods experience and a major reason why a growing number of consumers prefer to shop there. This is also why Whole Foods has now found itself to be the defendant in PETA’s latest lawsuit.

Recently, PETA released a video depicting the horrific abuse of pigs at a Whole Foods supplier farm in Pennsylvania. Just a day after the release of that footage, PETA, along with other listed plaintiffs, initiated a class action lawsuit against Whole Foods for unfair and deceptive business practices, calling Whole Foods’“humane meat” claims a “myth.” Jared Goodman, director of animal law for PETA, explained to The Washington Post that the suit “is about Whole Foods misleading consumers that are buying meat,” by using false and idyllic claims of “humane" practices which, in turn, entice consumers to purchase those products. Additionally, consumers pay a higher price for Whole Foods meat based on these sensationalized claims. “‘Humane meat’ is a myth that dupes well-intentioned shoppers into paying higher prices for the very products of crowding, lingering death, and suffering that they were trying to avoid,” Goodman says. PETA is seeking a ruling which will prevent Whole Foods from continuing this marketing as well as to obtain reimbursement for members of the class for any money that Whole Foods procured from them through these deceptive practices.

The crux of the lawsuit centers around Whole Foods’ use of the Global Animal Partnership (GAP) 5-step program. Whole Foods uses this program to certify their meat suppliers and places signage around their stores indicating that those participating suppliers have superior animal welfare practices. The problem is, PETA alleges, the standards of the GAP program are a “sham”and thus the promotion of those products by Whole Foods as “humane” is faulty as well.

Being certified by the GAP program alone, as touted by the Whole Foods website, is intended to signify the producer’s “commitment to animal welfare practices.” The GAP program has five steps at which producers can be certified and the treatment of the animals is supposed to improve with each rising step. However, PETA argues, the steps are essentially meaningless and merely reflect standard industry practices already in place, making this “humane” meat no better than any other product on the market. For example, GAP Step 1 boasts cage-free broiler chickens, despite the fact that cages for broiler chickens are no longer a standard industry practice, PETA claims. This makes claims of superior animal welfare at that Step utterly meaningless. In addition, Step 1 and Step 2 suppliers are permitted to crowd birds into sheds just as tightly as is the industry standard; again debunking the claims of better animal treatment. PETA also claims that the program actually allows for an even higher daily mortality rate for poultry suppliers than the standard industry mandates.

PETA alleges that Whole Foods’ enforcement of these standards is flawed as well. PETA claims that audits occur only every 15 months and that they are pre-arranged, not unannounced, giving suppliers ample time to prepare and perfect their presentation to the auditors. PETA also claims that if a supplier fails aspects of the audit, their certification is not automatically revoked. Instead they are given many chances to make corrections and could possibly be “out of compliance for years without losing [their] certification[s].”

As was expected, the suit has been met with sharp debate and criticism of PETA from concerned consumers. Whole Foods CEO Walter Robb stated that he believed Whole Foods was a poor choice for this suit as Whole Foods’ standards for animal welfare are “the most rigorous — by far — of any grocer.” Robb, along with others, questioned why PETA would choose to target a company that is at least attempting to promote farmed animal welfare and is urging improvements from their suppliers. This is admittedly far better than most grocers today can claim. Rather than turning a blind eye like others, Whole Foods focuses on “providing accountability through collaboration, transparency or production and traceability to source,” Robb says. The efforts of Whole Foods to at least bring farmed animal welfare to light and to encourage sustainable farming practices makes it a far more progressive grocer than most and has some consumers questioning why PETA would be targeting a company that is actually making these efforts.

On the other hand, it is easy to see how Whole Foods’ alleged commitment to and promotion of these practices could be one giant marketing scheme. It is clear that consumers in this day and age are evolving and genuinely care about the morality and sustainability behind the products they purchase. In fact, a 2014 study by the American Humane Association found that almost 95% of participants in a national survey stated that they were “very concerned” about the welfare of farmed animals. Almost 93% answered that it is “very important” to purchase humanely raised animal products. Approximately 76% answered that they are “very willing” to pay more for animal products that have been humanely raised. In short, consumers want to buy so-called “humane” meat and savvy grocers know this. It is easily conceivable that these grocers, like Whole Foods, might be tempted to affix “humane” labels to products not actually raised in such a way in order to charge a higher price from well-intended purchasers. This constitutes an extreme injustice. When this happens, grocers and marketers are taking advantage of consumers’ compassion and preying on their good-hearted attempts to be ethical. Schemes such as these should never go unnoticed and we, as consumers and individuals concerned about animal welfare, should welcome all well-founded attempts to expose them.

Consumers should be afforded the security of knowing that the companies and producers they give their money to are operating in a way that meets their ethical standards. In protecting and enforcing that security, is going after potentially well-meaning, progressive grocers a price we may have to pay? When faced with the possibility that consumers are being deceived into spending extra money purchasing products which they might be actually be opposed to, it seems the answer to that question is “yes.” It is time the truth about farmed animal raising is brought to light so consumers can stop buying into false pretenses and make more informed choices on the products they consume and the companies they support.

PETA’s original article on the lawsuit can be found here: http://www.peta.org/blog/peta-sues-whole-foods-over-humane-meat-claim