Evaluating Whole Foods Market’s Animal Welfare Rating System

Superb Chicago Tribune article on the new six-step animal welfare labeling standards pioneered by the Global Animal Partnership, which are currently being rolled out by Whole Foods Market.

This program is certain to annoy vegans who feel that any sort of welfare standards legitimize the killing of animals, and make people feel better about eating meat, milk, and eggs. I’ll now address why this sort of critique is shortsighted, and why this program in particular represents an important step forward for animals.

Vegans who raise the “humane standards legitimize killing” argument don’t, I suspect, actually spend much time talking to meat eaters. They may talk at meat eaters, but they probably don’t spend much time actually, you know, listening.

Between the time that I wrote Vegan and Meat Market, I became deeply interested in why certain people continue to eat meat, even after being presented with solid arguments supporting vegetarianism. So I made a big point of engaging as many meat eaters as I could in discussion, so I could understand their point of view.

I basically discovered there are two types of meat eaters: the ignorant and the informed. The vast majority of meat eaters I spoke to fell into this first group—they were largely ignorant of the realities of factory farming, and equally clueless about the health and environmental costs associated with animal products. Many of these people are remarkably receptive to rethinking their diets.

But I also discovered a significant number of meat eaters who are well aware of the consequences of meat eating, and who have made peace with these consequences. I believe this group of informed meat eaters presents a sort of existential threat to the world view of radical vegans. After all, if it’s possible to become quite knowledgeable about animal agriculture and still comfortably eat meat, then perhaps vegans don’t possess some monopoly on the truth.

So, rather than try to understand this group of meat eaters and their decisions, radical vegans often just refuse to think about the subject. And to the extent that they recognize well-informed meat eaters, it’s often with name-calling and contempt.

But suppose that rather than drawing back in disgust, you continue communicating with this group of informed meat eaters? I think you’ll find something interesting and important. Yes, these people have made peace with the idea of farmed animals being killed to satisfy their taste buds, but with few exceptions they do care surprisingly much about needless cruelty—and they likewise care about health issues and environmental concerns.

In other words, informed meat eaters represent a group of people who are exceedingly unlikely to become vegan, but who are generally remarkably receptive to choosing their animal products from the most responsible producers available.

And that’s why transparency within animal agribusiness is so important.

See, until now, animal welfare has basically been a binary deal. Either you purchased the cruelest factory farmed stuff, or you paid extra for products bearing labels like “cage-free” or “grass-fed.” There were no further gradations in animal welfare quality that were easily visible to the consumer.

The problem with this sort of binary system is that it entices producers to do the bare minimum necessary to label their products “cage-free” or “grass-fed,” and thereby rake in substantial added profits at minimal added expense.

What’s needed to combat these fraudsters, and they are legion, is a rigorously enforced program that presents welfare enhancements, not as black or white, but as a spectrum. And that’s exactly what Whole Foods Market is now rolling out. And, as we’ll see, the more reliable information a meat eater has access to, the better. Because, while I personally could never condone meat eating, I recognize the importance of meat eaters making the best-informed choices, so as to remove as much cruelty as possible from their diets.

Under Whole Foods’ system, they use a six-point scale, ranging from 1 to 5+, to rate the animal welfare standards of a given product. The 1 rating, by the way, isn’t factory farmed, but rather a bare minimum of what the Global Animal Partnership standards agency considers tolerable.

So, let’s think of the dynamic that this system now presents to purchasers of animal products. No longer can you waltz into Whole Foods Market, grab your carton of cage-free eggs and your pound of grass-fed sirloin, and emerge feeling like you’ve done your part for animals. Now, whenever you shop, you’re presented with the vital ethical questions that have, up until today, been unavailable to consumers of animal products.

Do you pay $2.00 extra per pound of ham, to go from a rating of 2 to 4? Maybe you choose the cheaper variety, but now you’re leaving the store knowing you’ve made a compromise in terms of the quality of life that your unfortunate pig received. Or maybe you decide to only buy the top ranked food available.  Will you still buy beef or eggs if there’s none available with the coveted 5+ ranking?

And suppose you stick to buying only the top-rated animal products. With every purchase, you are conscious of the premium you’re paying for this better welfare. Is this constant reminder of the high price of high welfare anything but a constant inducement to ratchet down the total amount of animal products that you eat?

For the first time, consumers of animal products must confront these vital questions every time they shop. When you choose to eat animal products, you should also make a conscious choice about the welfare standards in play.

The end result? This transparency is a game-changer. Giving meat eaters clear and accurate information is a huge win for farmed animals. Well-informed people make more ethical choices. As animal welfare labeling matures to accurately present its standards as a spectrum, we’re going to see countless conscientious omnivores acting on this information. Expect to see many of these people shifting their diets to include fewer, more expensive, and more humanely produced animal products.

As a final bonus, this is a kick in the teeth to the most unscrupulous producers, whose sole concern with animal welfare is in using the issue to boost profits. Consider this as beginning of the end for premium-priced animal products that deserve a welfare rating of 1, but that present themselves to the consumer as if they deserve a 5+. Finally, somebody’s watching. (Via Simon.) Link.

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