Update July 2006:
Since this article was originally published, Whole Foods Market announced that, as of 16 July 2006, the company would no longer sell live lobsters. Ending lobster sales is something no animal advocate would oppose; yet it's good to be aware of the context. Live lobsters don't sell well at many groceries, and whether they are stocked is normally a business decision. Whole Foods Market will continue to sell frozen lobster and crab flesh. Moreover, Whole Foods has left the future open to the possibility that all phases of the supply chain could be made humane. We might read that to mean that lobsters could be a big seller in some region where Whole Foods opens, and the corporation wants to keep its options open. We could not read it as an animal rights statement.
Update Summer 2007:
Just as we expected, Whole Foods Market’s lobster moratorium did not last. This year, 2007, Whole Foods opened a branch in Portland, Maine -- taking over a smaller organic food shop, a common tactic for this chain -- and resumed selling lobsters. Some tourists visit Maine primarily to eat lobsters, so there’s a lucrative market there. For more on this, visit our Summer 2007 issue of ActionLine.
The Road from Wall Street to Takoma Park
The latest in the array of offerings for the well-heeled consumer is the brand of “Animal Compassion.” Whole Foods Market, the upscale grocery chain known for organic and additive-free foods, recently introduced a new foundation, designed “to assist and inspire ranchers and meat producers around the world to achieve a higher standard of animal welfare excellence while maintaining economic viability.”
At once, the marketing idea caught the attention of Wall Street. Whole Foods hit a record high in January, the day it announced the hiring of a director for Animal Compassion standards. As one reporter phrased it, “Analysts said the plan to sell more humanely harvested steaks and chicken breasts will help the bottom line of the chain.” And a Newsweek story carried the caption, “Healthy Foods, Healthy Sales: The success of Whole Foods proves people will pay a premium for wild-caught salmon, pasture-fed beef and other high-end offerings.”
Shoppers flocked to their local branches on the company’s twenty-fifth anniversary in January. Heralded with posters depicting the silhouettes of a cow, pig, and chicken, and designated “First Global Five Percent Day,” the last Tuesday in January represented the investment of $550,000 out of the company’s global receipts and into the new Foundation.
In response, Friends of Animals representatives distributed information at five Whole Foods locations, including its flagship branch at New York City’s Columbus Circle. We asked shoppers to reconsider the idea of funding a concept that will promote animal research and the unveiling of yet another line of animal products.
Whole Foods Market reacted by electronically circulating a press statement headed “Animal Rights Groups Express Support for Animal Compassion Foundation.” The supportive letter, endorsed by 17 animal welfare organizations, was signed by Peter Singer, president of New Jersey-based Animal Rights International.
And Whole Foods CEO John Mackey wrote to Friends of Animals president Priscilla Feral to defend the foundation. In an open letter, Feral replied to Mackey, “What matters most here is that we have the ability to decide whether to keep bringing other animals into existence simply to be sold as food, while using up land and water resources that could be left to animals who really could have free and full lives.”
Whole Foods Market’s Animal Compassion Foundation is working with animal welfare groups to “create the ideal environments and conditions” to support “every animal’s” needs. It’s an odd project to contemplate. Those curious about the treatment standards currently recommended for the live lobsters sold by Whole Foods can check the company’s Web site for this tip: “One tried-and-true method of cooking lobster is by boiling it, which we love because it’s a cinch.”
The Animal Compassion Foundation’s executive director, Anne Malleau, has a MBA in agribusiness. The foundation is promoting the work of Ian J.H. Duncan, Malleau’s former advisor at the University of Guelph in Ontario. Professor Duncan has, over the years, served as an expert on animal welfare for both agribusiness and animal protection organizations.
According to a university biography, Professor Duncan currently focuses on “developing methods of asking animals what they feel about the conditions under which they are kept and the procedures to which they are subjected.” These procedures and conditions range from the tail-docking of pigs and forced-molting of chickens to the effects of fireworks on egg production. Duncan has tested hens on their preference for low-frequency or high-frequency florescent lights and concluded that they don’t really care about the matter. In a summary of the battery cage segment of his talk “Animal Welfare Issues in the Poultry Industry,” Duncan argues, “Cages do have some welfare advantages such as hygiene and small group size. Rather than banning cages outright, a solution might be to modify them to solve their short-comings while retaining their advantages.”
Duncan believes that “[t]he poultry species are capable of feeling several states of suffering including fear, frustration and pain.” One can imagine countless varieties of conditions in which one might attempt to measure pain, and Duncan, Mallaeu and others have made their careers in this field. Known as “applied ethology,” the field addresses the ways in which other animals react to given sets of environments and stimuli.
We often hear that people concerned with principles of humane treatment believe that humanity ought to avoid causing other animals unnecessary suffering. Yet what meaning does applied ethology bring to the food industry, given that eating other animals isn’t necessary at all? While it is true some methods of producing animal products cause more pain and discomfort than others, every new animal bred to satisfy consumers’ preferences represents additional suffering. And all the analyses of handling methods aside, the bottom line, as Catharine MacKinnon candidly puts it, is at the slaughterhouse.
The Road from Wall Street to Takoma Park Since the 1950s, global consumption of animal products has been on the rise. This traces an increase in income levels, says the government, while “the meat industry has provided scores of new brand-name, value-added products processed for consumers’ convenience.” But what of the suburban health-conscious set — those who prompted the rise in organics that offered Whole Foods a viable consumer base in the beginning?
Takoma Park, Maryland has traditionally attracted an Earth-conscious, vegetarian set of residents. In March of this year, the Washington Post checked up on them. The result was jarring. The Sunday farmers market, once a vegan’s paradise, now offers lamb sausages, veal chops and eggs. “Down the street, the food co-op — breaking with a 20-year tradition — is peddling flesh, too,” announced the Post. “The embrace of food-with-a-face in this peace-rallying, tree-hugging, self-declared nuclear-free zone has become so enthusiastic that some residents wonder whether a counter-counter-revolution is afoot.”
“We could start to be part of the revolution for lovingly and humanely raised and culled meat,” said Jennifer Gillispie, a Takoma Park yoga teacher who “never imagined that meat consumption would become so conspicuous” — and who, after ten years of being a vegetarian, went to Whole Foods, ordered half a roasted chicken, and found a table.
After asking “forgiveness for the chicken,” Gillipie bit. “It was like all my cells exploded, ‘Yes!’ I ate the whole thing, bones and all. I couldn’t get it into my mouth fast enough.”
Professor Stephen Havas, an epidemiologist at the University of Maryland Medical School, suggests that people who say they feel healthier after renouncing vegetarianism are going through something psychological. “Physicians knowledgeable about nutrition literature know that not eating meat is healthier than eating meat,” Havas told the Post.
The Takoma Park food co-op has evidently been going through something psychological too. Last spring, 71 percent of co-op members voted against safeguarding the term “vegetarian” in the store’s mission statement. Shortly afterward, chicken patties arrived on store shelves. The co-op “needed to start selling meat,” its manager told the Post, pointing out the competition from several nearby Whole Foods Markets.
Going through Something Psychological
The success of Whole Foods Market in bringing organic and natural foods into the mainstream cannot be ignored. The company draws shoppers who hope to make healthful and socially responsible purchases, and that is a welcome move.
The direction taken by the store in its regard for the other animals of the planet, however, is less than responsible. Making animal products look good is an affront to animal advocacy. It also runs counter to the principles of maintaining good health, understanding world hunger, and preserving what we can of the global environment.
However they are raised, animals used for food become a source of methane, a particularly potent greenhouse gas. Their waste causes one of our most serious water pollution problems. The production, transport, processing and packaging of animal products agriculture require an extraordinary amount of fossil fuels.
The land we take up on the face of the earth is expanded greatly because of the way we farm. On these great, grassy lands, bison once roamed. Will sightings of these animals now mainly occur at Whole Foods Markets?
When we talk about population figures, we should consider too that we breed so many animals into existence as food that they now outnumber us three-to-one. No wonder a third of the world’s surface is taken up with animal grazing ” ironically, expanding the space we allot for confined animals may worsen the situation. In any case, expanding the space makes for more expensive products, and contributes to the idea that taking up space is a badge of happiness and affluence. This, in turn, contributes to the devastation of habitat critical to the survival of free-living animals.
For all of these reasons, we might think twice before accepting the idea that activism is compatible with the business decision made by companies looking to enhance a niche market for animal products.
The story of the Takoma Co-op is a parable for our time. In communities throughout North America, it seems that people are going through something psychological. The idea that killing can be done “lovingly” does not indicate the beginning of a revolutionary idea, but rather a crisis of conscience. As people who make daily decisions on ethical grounds, it is up to members of the animal advocacy community to restore a vegetarian business ethic to our local activities.