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Animal Welfare Ratings Not Just for Carnivores

Animal Welfare Ratings Not Just for Carnivores

My brother Patrick chided himself the other day for eating something that seemed innocuous enough: a milk chocolate-covered almond. In doing so he broke his new year's resolution as the slip-up marked his first since trading in a vegetarian lifestyle for veganism on Jan. 1.

The concept is completely foreign to most family members like my mom who tried sending him home with tins of tuna and a jar of mayonnaise. But Patrick takes his do-not-eat list extremely seriously. He won't even touch fish, so I was surprised when he took interest in a program intended for meat eaters: Whole Foods' new 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating system (see Whole Foods Introduces Animal Welfare Ratings).

Announced last week, the Global Animal Partnership's program assigns a color-coded label to all beef, pork and chicken sold at Whole Foods. And in so doing gives shoppers like Patrick a reason to consider eating meat again. He is among the 54% of America's 7.3 million vegetarians who cite animal welfare for their choice of lifestyle.

Not everyone in the segment is morally opposed to eating meat. Some are like my brother in that they relate to animals raised for food, the same as they would to a pet. In Patrick's case, it's not the way these animals' lives are ended that's so much of a problem as the quality of their experience leading up to that final day.

Until now there's been no easy way to identify which companies, for instance, allow cows to spend their entire life on a range or pasture, without branding or ear notching, or which chickens were carried upright by handlers, one at a time, and were able to perch.

But come May 9, Whole Foods will open a window for all interested shoppers when it adopts the system in all stores with all fresh and pre-packaged beef, pork and chicken. To date, nearly 1,200 operations raising more than 140 million animals annually have been rated under the program. In order to be sourced by Whole Foods, a product must at least achieve step 1 status, no small feat since it requires more from farmers than Whole Foods has ever asked before.

Considering the timing of its announcement, the animal welfare system will most certainly draw mainstream followers, and maybe even people like me who don't generally shop Whole Foods. The news came a day after the almighty Oprah brought her viewers on a guided tour of a Cargill slaughterhouse to educate them about where meat comes from. Its cameras documented cows on their journey through the Temple Grandin-designed serpentine chute used to calm them, through to the handling of carcasses (slaughter was explained, but not filmed).

The program was not critical of Cargill. In fact Oprah pointed out that of the 20 meat producers who were approached about being on the show it was the only one to say yes, leaving many to wonder about conditions elsewhere.

Now there is an option for Americans besides vegetarianism, and an opportunity for retailers to meet their need.