July 3, 2014,
Hi Dr. Martin and Dr. DeMello — Liz Burkhart here from Whole Foods Market. Please see our executive leadership team’s response (below) to your letter regarding the sale of rabbits in some of our Northern California and Washington, DC area stores. For your reference, I’ve also attached a copy of our animal welfare standards for rabbits. We have also made these available on our website for anyone else who is interested in viewing the full standards.
Dear Dr. Martin and Dr. DeMello:
Thank you for bringing your thoughts and concerns to our attention. We recognize this could be a concern for some shoppers in our Northern California and Mid-Atlantic regions where we have a rabbit pilot program, whether they have rabbits as pets or not. We hear your feedback and we will take it into careful consideration as we evaluate this pilot of the sale of rabbit in two of our 12 regions.
The reality is, for many years, lots of customers have requested that we carry rabbit; and those who want to buy rabbit will buy rabbit, whether Whole Foods Market is selling it or not. In conventional systems, there are no defined standards for raising rabbit. Most rabbit production is grim in stark contrast to the standards we developed at Whole Foods Market, which provides vastly-improved living conditions and care.
Our animal welfare standards for rabbit are designed around their instinctual behaviors and include more than 75 species-specific requirements that ensure the overall health and well-being of the animals. These standards are a direct result of a rigorous four-year process to address the welfare issues in rabbit production. As we have done in the past, our hope is that our standards will be a model for industry change.
Executive Leadership Team, Whole Foods Market
Response from Margo DeMello:
I appreciate your responding to our concerns, and sending over your animal welfare standards document for us to look at. Even though these standards, as we read them, certainly sound better than many of the rabbit “processors” that we’ve seen in the past, you have to know that this isn’t going to make us feel any better about the animals for whom we spend our lives advocating, and who are now the nation’s third most beloved companion mammal, being raised only to be slaughtered at 7-12 weeks, simply to give some of your customers another choice of animal to eat. It just doesn’t make it any better, for those rabbits, who will now be killed in greater numbers, nor for us, nor for the millions of Americans who love them. In addition, your welfare standards don’t address the issue of slaughter, which as you know for rabbits, is unregulated by the USDA, and is a cruel and terrifying practice for rabbits. I’ve researched and written about rabbit slaughter methods myself, and I know the small producers from whom you will be sourcing your rabbits are no better (and are often worse) than the large producers in terms of how they slaughter their rabbits, who suffer horrifically. There is no way that Whole Foods can deal with, or write any sort of standards for, how these sensitive creatures will be slaughtered “humanely.” There simply is no such thing for rabbits.
We are also having a hard time understanding how it makes economic sense to Whole Foods. Rabbit lovers shop at Whole Foods in huge numbers, in order to buy healthy foods for themselves and in order to buy their greens for their rabbits. These customers will no longer shop at your stores and will be taking their business elsewhere, as will a huge number of your current animal loving customers.
We implore you to reconsider your decision.
Response from Liz Burhart:
Thanks again for sharing your feedback with us, and for giving us an opportunity to share more information about our standards. We do have specific requirements around slaughtering practices. While the USDA does not require rabbits to be inspected before they are sold, Whole Foods Market mandates USDA-inspection. This means a USDA-inspector is on-site during the entire slaughter process. Additionally, suppliers have to meet our standards regarding handling, stunning, and insensibility, among others. You are correct that conventional rabbit slaughter can be grim, which is why we developed our standards. All Whole Foods Market rabbits are stunned before slaughter, which renders the animal unconscious and unable to feel pain prior to slaughter. As with all slaughter facilities that supply meat to Whole Foods Market meat departments, our rabbit suppliers must also pass an annual third-party animal welfare audit.
Response from Margo DeMello:
Thank you for writing back. But I’m sure that you know there aren’t even enough USDA inspectors to efficiently inspect the slaughterhouses that the federal government mandates that they inspect, much less those that are voluntarily inspected like the rabbit processors you describe. That’s one reason we have so many meat-related illnesses in this country every year.
But this is simply no guarantee that these animals will be treated humanely, and will not die screaming in pain.
The other issue, and this is one that we keep bringing up, is that rabbits will be the first animal that you serve to your customers that is a popular American companion animal. While I recognize that our animal classification system is relatively arbitrary–certainly we know that pigs are as smart and sensitive as dogs–the reality is that it is dogs, cats, and rabbits who live in this country’s homes. Why would you choose to fill your meat cases with the corpses of animals whom millions of Americans–your own customers–adore?
I’m sorry, but this is simply not an issue that rabbit lovers, or even animal lovers, will stand down on.