Whole Foods adopts new system that rates how the meat was treated

Adopting the meat rating principles set forth by the Global Animal Partnership, Whole Foods rolled out a program this month that lets shoppers know how the animals that became their beef, chicken, and pork products were treated during their lives. The new Five-Step Animal Welfare Rating system uses certified third-party auditors to evaluate farms and meat products regarding the health, treatment, housing, transport, slaughter, and processing of the animals before they hit the Whole Foods stores.

The ratings will be displayed in colored and numbered labels on signs and packaged fresh meats in the case. Here's the basic chart, in which the ratings range from the unacceptable Red to the Green Step 5+, and what the labels mean.

The most humanely treated meats get a rating of Green Step 5+, which means the animals spent their entire lives on one farm, among many other requirements. The lowest rating is a red sticker, which won't be on anything at Whole Foods. The company requires that meats rank at an Orange Step 1 rating or higher, which means that there were no cages, no crates, and no crowding in the animals' upbringing. The colors and numbers are on the chart on the right, as created by Global Animal Partnership. 

Each type of meat has an even more detailed breakdown of prerequisites needed to attain the ascending levels. There are 91, 118, and 121 requirements for broiler chicken, pigs, and beef cattle products, respectively, simply to achieve a Step 1 rating. According to the Whole Foods website, even a Step 1, "is a huge accomplishment in the industry."

The species-specific rules run the gamut. For example, Step 4 and 5 pigs require unrestricted access to wallows, while Step 5 cattle cannot have branding or ear notching and Step 5+ broiler chickens must be able to perch. In addition to creating transparency for customers, the 5-Step Rating system is also meant to give farmers and ranchers a plan to follow to improve the welfare of their animals.

Signs on the meat case too
Signs on the meat case too
Courtesy of Whole Foods

John Mackey, the co-founder and co-CEO of Whole Foods, is on the Board of Global Animal Partnership, and the nonprofit has been supported by the company since its inception. Whole Foods says it is also working on adding sheep, turkey, and other meats to the rating program but did not want to wait longer to bring the system to the stores.

The Five-Step Animal Welfare rating system is not the same as organic certification, although some Whole Foods products at both the Minneapolis and St. Paul stores will qualify for both labels.

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