ANIMAL RIGHTS GROUPS SPLIT ON WHOLE FOODS' INITIATIVE

NEW YORK -- The formation of a farm animal welfare foundation by Whole Foods Market stores is getting mixed reviews from animal rights groups.Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods announced it will donate more than $550,000 as seed money toward the creation of the new Animal Compassion Foundation, a nonprofit organization set up to provide education and research services to help ranchers and meat producers

NEW YORK -- The formation of a farm animal welfare foundation by Whole Foods Market stores is getting mixed reviews from animal rights groups.

Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods announced it will donate more than $550,000 as seed money toward the creation of the new Animal Compassion Foundation, a nonprofit organization set up to provide education and research services to help ranchers and meat producers "to achieve a higher standard of animal welfare excellence while still maintaining economic vitality," the retailer said in a statement.

Among its objectives, the Animal Compassion Foundation will encourage the global exchange of humane animal husbandry techniques, support change among producers and, ideally, motivate the industry as a whole to adopt more humane practices, the company said.

Though Whole Foods declined an interview request with SN, it posted a letter of support from 17 animal advocacy groups on its Web site. The influential People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals was among the groups that signed the letter, addressed to John Mackey, chief executive officer of the natural foods retailer.

"The undersigned animal welfare, animal protection and animal rights organizations would like to express their appreciation and support for the pioneering initiative being taken by Whole Foods Market in setting up the Farm Animal Compassionate Standards," the letter stated. "We hope and expect that these standards will improve the lives of millions of animals."

Nevertheless, a Darien, Conn.-based group objected to the launch of the program. Representatives of Friends of Animals handed out critical fliers to shoppers at the entrances to five stores on the day Whole Foods designated as "Five Percent Day" -- 5% of all store sales were to be used to fund the foundation.

"Don't buy from Whole Foods Market today," the flier stated. "Encourage other animal advocates to say no to the launch. Yes, other grocers sell meat -- but not while purposefully pretending that those who consume it can thereby become animal advocates."

The fliers, distributed outside stores in New York, Washington, Greenwich, Conn., Portland, Ore., and Wayne, Pa., had the intended effect, a spokesman for Friends of Animals told SN. Some shoppers who picked up the leaflets "turned around rather than go in and shop on that day," the spokesman said. "We're not saying never shop at Whole Foods. We're saying today, 5% of money will go into research into breeding and slaughtering animals. We may address Whole Foods, the foundation they're creating, in other ways."

Whole Foods has touted the new program in a flurry of media releases.

"Just as Whole Foods Market played an important role in the creation of organic standards, we will work with meat producers to raise the bar in treating farm animals with more compassion," said Margaret Wittenberg, chairwoman of the Animal Compassion Foundation and vice president of governmental and public affairs for Whole Foods, which operates 166 stores. "We'll dedicate our efforts to bringing the importance of animals' welfare to the same level of expectation the industry has for food safety, quality and taste."

On the Friends of Animals Web site, a letter from Mackey to Priscilla Feral, president of the animal advocacy group, pointed out the endeavor by Whole Foods was established to improve the welfare of farm animals while they're living. Mackey, describing himself as a vegan, noted in the letter that it's beyond his power to persuade everyone else to adopt the vegan philosophy.

Mackey advised Feral to target conventional retailers that sell meats coming from "factory farms of horrible exploitation and cruelty. Isn't that a better target to go after than Whole Foods, who is dedicating millions of dollars to try to improve the quality of farm animals' lives?"

In response, Feral noted in her letter to Mackey that "yes, we are fully aware that other grocers sell flesh. Indeed, you've found a niche market by pointing to their business practices as a foil. It's a poor reflection on the decisions of Whole Foods Market when the CEO defends them by arguing that there are worse grocers."

According to its Web site, Friends of Animals is an international animal advocacy group whose "goal is to free animals from cruelty and institutionalized exploitation around the world." The group claims to have 200,000 members worldwide.