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Animal welfare rating system encourages ethical purchases at the meat counter

Animal welfare rating system encourages ethical purchases at the meat counter

A six-step, color-coded labeling system allows customers to choose meat that aligns with their principles and is being piloted in the South by Whole Foods Market. Currently, standards are in place for cattle raised for beef, broiler chickens and pigs.

It may soon be a lot easier for customers to align their ethical beliefs with their purchasing decisions at the meat counter thanks to a new humane meat-rating system being rolled out by Whole Foods Market.

The six-step, color-coded labeling system is currently in place in the South, but should be seen on a national level in early 2011, said  Miyun Park, executive director of the Global Animal Partnership, a nonprofit organization that helped develop the program.  

Though the system, which is free to retailers, was initially developed for Whole Foods, Park said she's currently working with other stores that have expressed interest in participating. "You'll definitely see other people involved by 2011, I'm just not sure if it will be the first or second quarter, she said."I will say the enthusiasm has been really exciting from both purveyors and producers as well as a lot of other countries."

A tiered standard system offers producers the opportunity to improve as they go. Currently there are standards in place for cattle raised for beef, broiler chickens and pigs. Park said GAP is currently developing protocol for egg-laying hens, geese, sheep and lamb.

Signage helps customers determine how products are rated. With beef cattle, for example, the highest rating (5+) goes to producers who raise animals who spend their entire life on one farm, are raised in a pasture and are not crowded or physically altered. The lowest rating, (1) goes to producers who only adhere to the no-crowding principle.

Dale Austin, chief operating officer for the American Humane Association, a Denver-based nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing initiatives to protect farm animals, said he's interested in learning more about how the GAP standards were determined.

"One potential concern would be that some of the standards seem to oversimplify some really complex issues," he said. "For example, science tells us that a free range environment is not always what’s best for a hen’s safety, or for food safety. We see a bit of contradiction there that can be resolved by using standards that are based in science."   

Overall though, Austin said the new program is encouraging and seems to be a response to what consumers are asking for in the store. "If consumers really take to these standards, and demand them elsewhere, the effects will be felt across many retailers," he said.

Does the GAP program benefit small producers?

What really sets the GAP standards apart from other animal welfare certifications is the program's 6-step tiered approach which, I think, will encourage producers to continue improving standards more so than a pass/fail program.  Still, from the producer's perspective, I do have concerns. Is there a benefit for them to spend extra money to be GAP certified? Will Whole Foods be offering producers incentives, or will this now be the cost of doing business?

The irony is that most consumers who plug into welfare issues strive to buy their meat products from smaller producers who typically already have humane practices. With limited resources, it's particularly difficult for these small players to add additional tracking and audit systems to satisfy a certification.  Whereas larger producers can hire additional hands to deal with this end of the business, that's not always an option for the little guys.

If Whole Foods requires all meat to be GAP certified, this could be a huge disservice to small producers. I'm interested to see how the store plans to make such a certification feasible both monetarily and structure-wise. The store declined to comment on this story but said to look for additional information in January.

Overall, I'm encouraged by Whole Foods' move to better address animal welfare issues in the store. I also like that the GAP program is free and will soon be available for any retailer to participate in. According to Park, GAP was founded in 2008 and essentially born from Whole Foods Market when the store was working to develop a set of farm animal standards. Though Whole Foods could have easily owned the program, they gave up the intellectual property so other stores could participate. I think this speaks highly of the organization.

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