Ten Reasons I don't buy Meat at Whole Foods

We all like to feel good about the food that we buy. This is especially true in the realm of meat, where strong feelings about animal treatment mix and mingle with dietary needs, personal preferences, and deeply held beliefs. I believe that most of us, when it really comes down to it, want to do right thing when we buy meat. Considerably less clear is what constitutes "the right thing." That's because the issue of eating meat is like an elaborate trail of dominoes, each part related to, and dependent upon, another. There is animal welfare to consider, in addition to environmental sustainability, the rights of workers, personal health, and economics. 

Many people turn to Whole Foods when it comes to buying humanely handled meat. The pictures of local farmers and cows grazing on pasture that line the walls behind the meat counter impart the feeling that we're doing the right thing, even as we browse the overstocked, perfectly arranged aisles sipping on fresh pressed green juice and enjoying free samples of cheese. I know about this behavior because I do it all the time. I love going to Whole Foods. They're just so damn good at making me feel good while I'm in there. The abundance of produce, the ambient music, the air conditioning, the wine and beer bar inside the store with free samples from 5-7...it's great.

To their credit, Whole Foods has made a concerted effort to be transparent about their meat program. Whole Foods is in a tough position when it comes to meat because they need to cater to so many types of people, and so many ideas of what constitutes "ethical," "sustainable," or "humane" meat. As a result, they've invested a lot of time and money into creating a system that allows consumers to choose the meat they buy based on the characteristics that are most important to that individual. They do this through a five-step system for rating animal welfare that uses numbers and colors to communicate certain requirements that the rancher has met in the production of that meat product. The responsibility for developing and implementing this five-step rating system actually belongs to a non-profit organization called the Global Animal Partnership, which aims to improve farm animal welfare worldwide. 

Despite the Global Animal Partnership and the pictures of happy cows, I still don't feel good about buying meat at Whole Foods. The more I read about the five-step system, the more I feel skeptical about its ability to educate consumers, increase the welfare of farm animals, and address the issues surrounding the raising of meat animals with which most consumers are concerned. Here is a list of the top ten issues I have with meat at Whole Foods:

  1. The Global Animal Partnership (GAP) that serves as the non-profit certifying body for the 5-step animal welfare rating system was founded by Whole Foods. It's possible that they had to do this because such a body didn't exist. Still, it's a case of inappropriate bedfellows. Most of us would feel skeptical if an oil company founded a non-profit that rated drilling operations in terms of environmental safety and impact.
  2. Whole Foods executives remain on the board, helping decide what the requirements for ratings are, although they're not experts in animal welfare. It seems obvious that only experts should be on the board: vets, ranchers known for sustainable expertise (like Joel Salatin), university professors, slaughterhouse workers, slaughterhouse design experts (like Temple Grandin) and so on. That's the rub about the meat industry, you have to really be in it to know what's going on. It's not enough to stand at the gate of a pasture and say that those cows look happy, that they're outside, and eating grass. There's so much more involved in raising animals for meat. 
  3. The third-party auditors that are referenced frequently on the website as evidence of auditor neutrality are never identified. Who are these third party auditors? Which companies are doing the audits and who is making sure that they are qualified?
  4. Conveying animal welfare through numbers and colors is not that effective in communicating to consumers necessary information about the meat they buy. First of all, I would like to know where the meat comes from, period, end of story. Where is the name of the ranch? Secondly, the ratings are difficult for consumers who know nothing about raising animals to judge. What does "pasture centered" really mean? The explanations in-store are vague and Whole Foods team member understanding of the nuances between the ratings is minimal. 
  5. I'm skeptical that Whole Foods team members are able to completely separate different ratings when they put out the cases, and take them in for the night. Recently, I went into my local Whole Foods to see what my ratings options were. Every piece of beef in the case was rated four (pasture centered). Having worked at a Whole Foods and seen the gaps between what they say and what they do first-hand, I was skeptical that this was accurate. I wondered if it ever happened that an uninformed employee, in a rush to set up the case, just threw in whatever tag she could find. I've managed a butcher shop myself, and I know the things employees do when they're in a rush. 
  6. I have always been disappointed with the quality of the meat that I purchase at Whole Foods. Always, without exception. Once I bought a small chuck roast that hailed from Hearst Ranch in central California. When I got home, I realized that my roast was actually from the clod, and had a long tough (identifying) piece of sinew running through it. It was not a chuck roast at all. I bought sausage that tasted sour the day I bought it. I bought chicken feet that went off within 2 days. I bought flavorless bacon that was slathered in some kind of sticky fruit schmear. (What was that?) While the men and women behind the counter are always (to their credit) exceptionally good at customer service, I think that the expectation on them to always have a huge, abundant, full case results in poor quality overall. And, hey, while we're on the topic of quality, I've found that true knowledge of meat is hard to find in a Whole Foods meat department. Most (I'm not saying all) cut with poor technique, tie roasts poorly, and don't properly trim difficult cuts. 
  7. Audits on ranches rated by GAP occur only once every 15 months. All cattle that are raised for meat to be sold at Whole Foods are taken to slaughter below 18 months of age. That means that an audit on their livelihood happens only once in their entire lives. It's not enough.
  8. Animal welfare represents just one of a whole gamut of issues surrounding the meat we eat. Where is the number that tells us how many underpaid laborers worked in ice cold rooms for long shifts cutting up this meat? I'd also like to see (as mentioned above) the name of the ranch or rancher. I'd like to see sustainability requirements for the land on which the animals are raised. I'd like to know where the meat was cut and packaged, and where it was slaughtered. 
  9. Speaking of that ugly topic, why is there no mention of slaughter practice in the five-step system? I understand that most consumers don't love the word 'slaughter.' Maybe it doesn't have to be displayed on a big neon sign. But, still, I'd like to know if the animal was harvested on-site with a mobile slaughter unit, or in a packing house, and where, and how. Just FYI, slaughterhouses are NOT all created equal. This is an important part of the equation. 
  10. The growing availability of meat at local farmer's markets and from local ranches makes it unnecessary to support big corporations like Whole Foods when small ranchers all over the country could benefit from more direct support. I prefer to buy my meat direct, when possible, so that I lower my own costs and give my money directly to the person who needs it, the rancher. 

One last thing, I want to be clear that I'm not trying to knock the ranchers who have indeed become five-step certified through GAP. I haven't evaluated them in any way and, in fact, I'm a big fan of a few of them, like Mary's, Hearst Ranch, and Stemple Creek.

I'm also not necessarily trying to knock Whole Foods. I think they're in the tough position of trying to provide humanely raised meat to a wide variety of customers with different ideas of what that means. But, as someone in the industry, I don't buy meat there. I'm skeptical about the GAP system, and I am disappointed with the execution of their mission. Also, their meat is never at the quality I believe we should be getting for those prices. 

Okay, okay, now you're thinking, if I can't buy meat at Whole Foods, where can I buy it? That'll be the topic of our next little talk.

Until next time,