The Moral Meat Market

Whole Foods's animal-welfare violations show how hollow the rhetoric of corporate responsibility is.

Between June and September of 2015, an undercover PETA investigation documented how Sweet Stem Farm, a Pennsylvania hog operation, treats its animals. They found “pigs [that] spent almost all their time crammed into crowded sheds on concrete floors,” numerous animals with “grotesque rectal prolapses,” and sick animals left untreated for days on end.

Compared to all the other factory-farm exposés periodically released by animal rights groups, this one was not exceptionally gruesome or violent — Sweet Stem’s abuses seemed almost mundane in comparison.

But this particular investigation didn’t target a big factory farm; it targeted a small operation that touts its “unwavering commitment to the humane treatment of our animals.”

The farm is certified as an “enriched environment” by the Global Animal Partnership (GAP), and sells its products to Whole Foods consumers who visualize happy animals frolicking in green pastures when they buy their bacon.

PETA followed up the investigation by filing a complaint against Whole Foods with the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs in Washington, DC.

The complaint became the basis of an attempted class-action lawsuit in California on the grounds that Whole Foods’s humane-treatment claims amounted to false advertising because they duped conscientious consumers into paying a premium for morally unpalatable meat.

Painless and Invisible

PETA’s attack on Whole Foods, surprisingly, made some animal rights supporters, like Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), uncomfortable. After all, the GAP rating system was a gold standard of sorts.

Part of Whole Foods’s portfolio of market-based solutions to ethical and social issues, GAP has drawn praise from proponents of both conscious capitalism and — to some extent — animal rights.

Promising transparency, scrupulous auditing, and an arm’s-length relationship to Whole Foods itself, GAP was supposed to enable conscientious consumers to buy improved animal treatment and thereby support alternative animal production. The system also provided privatized oversight and regulation in an otherwise notoriously under-regulated industry.

The industry’s lack of regulation is coupled with an obscure production chain. As much as we might care, we know very little about where most of our food comes from or the conditions under which it is produced.

As David Harvey says, “The grapes that sit upon the supermarket shelves are mute; we cannot see the fingerprints of exploitation upon them or tell immediately what part of the world they are from.”

Meat presents an additional layer of complexity. Its production raises concerns not only about labor standards and environmental impacts, but also about how the commodities — the animals themselves — are treated.

French anthropologist Noelie Vialles says modern consumers deal with this added complexity by making two demands of meat production: “it must be non-violent (ideally: painless); and it must be invisible (ideally: non-existent).”

The meat industry has been more than happy to oblige the second half of this demand. Ever-larger farms and slaughterhouses are located far from urban centers, and animals live, potentially suffer abuse, and die in spaces geographically and perceptually distant from most consumers.

And where prying eyes have threatened this arrangement, the industry has lobbied for so-called “ag-gag” laws, like the one put into effect this January in North Carolina, which make undercover investigations like PETA’s illegal.

But as the tug-of-war of revelation and obfuscation between activists and the industry continues, the general public has, in line with Vialles’s observation, also begun to clamor for more “humane” meat.

The farm-to-table movement, the success of ostensibly progressive super-brands like Chipotle and Whole Foods, and the promises of fast-food giants like McDonald’s to begin sourcing cage-free eggs and pork are all evidence of a growing demand for “ethical” meat production.

But humanely raised meat — the happy animals that populate the bucolic scenes of our advertising-fueled vision of rural America — is virtually nonexistent. By some estimates, as much as 99 percent of all animals raised for food in the United States come from confined animal feeding operations or large-scale feedlots.

It is therefore unsurprising, especially given the agricultural lobby’s political power, that the United States has no legally binding definition of animal “welfare” or “humane” treatment. The Humane Slaughter Act, as per its name, only covers a fraction of an animal’s life, regulating nothing about actual on-farm husbandry practices.

The contemporary American economy produces a bigger roadblock. As it stands, we cannot eat animals at the high quantities and low prices we are used to and expect them to be raised with any sort of dignity or respect; nor can we expect much humanity in production systems designed around an economies-of-scale business model.

The farm-to-table value chain advocated by people like Michael Pollan simply cannot be scaled up to meet America’s current demand or channeled through its current distribution network.

However, this hasn’t stopped retailers and producers from trying to marketize “humane” treatment, labeling their products with claims about animal stewardship, some of which bear official USDA approval. But such claims often amount to little more than fluff.

A 2014 study by the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) reviewed the approval processes for twenty-five different products that made pro-animal or pro‑environmental promises. The products included chicken, beef, and pork from conventional producers as well as from the flagship non-conventional agriculture leaders Diestel Turkey Ranch and Niman Ranch Pork (which has since been acquired by the factory-farm giant Perdue as part of its diversification into the “humane” product category).

The review found that USDA approval for these companies’ claims amounted to virtual rubber-stamping. Producers were allowed to provide their own proof, which was not verified by site visits or shared with the public. In other words, there was no evidence whatsoever that any of these products came from animals treated any differently than the industrially raised 99 percent.

AWI’s proposed solution was that the USDA refuse to verify any claims until they could be vetted by a third-party certifier who would “provide meaningful, verifiable standards . . . [and] confirm compliance with the standards — first on the farm and, if appropriate, during transport and/or at slaughter.” But the USDA isn’t budging.

This intransigence has led some to seek a market-based solution. Enter Whole Foods.

The Humane Myth

The Austin-based supermarket chain has a knack for charming customers. Its reputation and fortune are built on promoting better calories for the socially conscious and financially secure — a sort of guilt cleanse — driven by founder John Mackey’s unwavering faith in the free market’s power to better the world. Part of this appeal, as Nicole Aschoff observes in The New Prophets of Capital, is reflected in Whole Foods’s commitment to animal welfare.

Their 2005 “farm animal compassionate standards” were considered so progressive that they were praised by many in the self-described pro-animal community. Philosopher Peter Singer (author of the movement-defining Animal Liberation) wrote a grateful open letter to Mackey that was signed by a number of animal welfare, animal protection, and animal rights organizations — including HSUS and PETA.

The letter stated that the signatories “would like to express their appreciation and support for the pioneering initiative being taken by Whole Foods Market . . . We hope and expect that these standards will improve the lives of millions of animals.”

Animal agriculture, the thinking went, might catch the emergent wave of conscious consumerism that had become an important demand-side driver for more ethically produced and fairly traded coffee, bananas, and clothing (with varying degrees of success, however defined).

Moreover, HSUS and PETA had already begun to foster a carrot-and-stick relationship with major fast-food chains like McDonald’s and Burger King, targeting them with highly visible campaigns and then praising them when they committed to improving their animal-welfare practices. (The New York Times’s Nicholas Kristof remains effusive about this approach, writing in May that “the best way for nonprofits to get large-scale results is sometimes to work with corporations.”)

The hope was that Whole Foods might usher in new animal-welfare, best-practice, and smaller-scale value chains that bypassed factory farms and big meat purveyors altogether.

In 2008 Whole Foods was instrumental in the creation of GAP, an allegedly third-party, independent animal-welfare auditing and certification outfit that on paper seems every bit the conscious consumption ideal. Pacelle was even brought on as a board member (and, reciprocally, Mackey joined the HSUS board).

At the heart of GAP’s labeling scheme is its “Five Step Program” (actually comprising six steps: 1 through 5 and 5+). Each step represents a putative improvement in animal treatment and is backed by a promise of birth-through-slaughter oversight. Consumers encounter easy-to-read, color-coded, and numbered labels that identify each product in the Whole Foods meat case by its producer’s GAP rating.

The program is intended to address consumer concerns about transparency, with promotional copy claiming,

It’s often easy to forget that the burger, steak, or drumstick on your plate was once an animal. How was that animal raised? How was it treated? Where did it come from? . . . We are committed to answering these questions.

But consumers are not encouraged to investigate these answers beyond the numbered labels they find in the meat case. Instead, the program directs consumers to choose the form of animal treatment they prefer (and can afford), matching moral comfort with price. The program exemplifies neoliberal logic, trusting individual consumers to express their ethical, political, and social ideals through rational, atomized purchasing decisions.

Numerous scholars — including Boris Holzer, Michael Maniates, Josée Johnston, and Christine Parker — have criticized this better-capitalism-through-better-commodities approach, which relies in large part on a narrative that recasts consumption as politics. But GAP’s promises fall apart even on their own terms.

For one thing, GAP’s alleged independence from Whole Foods is a sham. Its tax filings show that the vast majority of its operating budget comes directly from Whole Foods.

In 2013 its only other donor was a lady from Belmont, California who chipped in $5,000; in 2014 HSUS contributed $25,000. Further, its budget for both years was under $300,000 — a tiny amount considering it claims to actively audit nearly three thousand certified farms.

Critics like PETA point out that these audits only happen every fifteen months and that non-compliant farmers suffer no direct punishment. Therefore, regardless of whether GAP is a corporate smokescreen or a woefully underfunded agency, it fails to live up to its promises to the animals it was designed to help.

As PETA’s investigation into Sweet Stem, a Step 2 farm, showed, animals may be free from cages, but they certainly do not enjoy idyllic lives. And Sweet Stem wasn’t just one bad apple.

While PETA was investigating pigs in Pennsylvania, the upstart animal rights group Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) clandestinely documented the living conditions of turkeys raised on California-based Diestel Farms, a Step 5+ farm that tops the GAP scale and is considered an ideal farming operation.

They found that Diestel — which had previously come under scrutiny in the 2014 AWI study — ran their bucolic, highly rated show-farm as a front for a confinement operation at a different location. DxE’s findings were nightmarish: “numerous turkeys covered with feces, missing large patches of feathers,” others with “eyes severely swollen by infection,” and some “trampled to death” and left dead among their companions.

The two investigations unleashed a brief media maelstrom, with coverage in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and even the Wall Street Journal, not only because of the outright animal suffering they depicted, but also because they punctured what many in the animal rights community began to refer to as the “humane myth.”

Almost eleven years to the day after Mackey received Singer’s encouraging letter, DxE, PETA, and a slew of other animal rights organizations (minus HSUS) sent him the equivalent of a cease-and-desist request to stop “fraudulent ‘animal welfare’ marketing and your financial support for violence against animals.”

Stretching the Truth

But was Whole Foods’s advertising actually fraudulent?

US Magistrate Judge Nathaneal Cousins didn’t think so. At the end of April, he dismissed PETA’s complaint on the grounds that all of Whole Foods’s claims about animal welfare, including its deployment of the GAP labels, amounted to “unspecific and unmeasurable . . . puffery.”

Whole Foods was not misleading, in other words, because it stayed within the bounds of exaggeration expected in any advertising.

Moreover, it did not violate the very transparency and disclosure on which their animal-welfare standards are premised because “retailers do not have a duty to disclose product information unless it relates to a consumer safety issue,” meaning Whole Foods’s promises were in no way binding.

This conclusion was certainly a legal victory for the supermarket chain, but it wasn’t good for its brand. Despite the judge’s decision, Whole Foods stubbornly stuck to its narrative, publishing a blog post titled “Our Animal Welfare Standards: Separating Fact from Fiction,” where it claimed — seemingly without irony — that “Whole Foods Market’s No. 1 priority is to ensure that our customers have the information they need to make the best, most informed choices for them and their families.”

Whole Foods’s feel-good, conscious-capitalist story now seemed to float free from both reality and legal opinion.

On paper, Whole Foods’s standards system is the conscious capitalist’s ideal: a way to address capitalism’s ills run amok on the factory farm by releasing animals from cages and giving customers sovereignty over their purchasing decisions, all without regulatory interference, serious ethical discussion, or political action. Repeating an all-too-common refrain, it suggests that we can buy our way to a better future.

It also relies, however, on the notion that good corporate actors will do what the market commands.

GAP’s close ties to Whole Foods, ineffectual auditing, and failure to address the very animal suffering it was designed to prevent show that the opposite is the case. Ethical claims are always part of a company’s cost-benefit calculations, and are easily ignored if consumers are sated and critics already speak the corporate language and sit on the board of directors.

Of course, not all farmers are inherently cruel, and John Mackey might even care about animals’ well-being. But without binding regulation and actual oversight, there is nothing stopping them from treating animals as nothing more than commodities.

And, at the risk of stating the obvious, animals treated like widgets on a production line (in or out of cages) are no closer to any sort of liberation. PETA and DxE, in pulling back the veil on GAP, revealed that conscious capitalism looks a lot like business as usual.

Changing the American food system will require concerted action.

This must include serious discussions about how we construe and engage with animal ethics; when, how, and if we consume animal products; and what sorts of farms and distribution systems we want and support. It will also mean fighting for pro-animal legislation and opposing draconian ag-gag rules, whose implications for whistleblowers and freedom of speech reach far beyond factory farms.

All of these are thoroughly political and collective issues, and, while they include careful consumer decisions and personal changes of habit, they will have to go far beyond individual choices and blind faith in the benevolence of the market.