Conscious shoppers don’t like to give their money to just anyone. They want to know what practices their cash supports. A new level of transparency in the meat industry lets those curious shoppers know what exactly they’re paying for.
The 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating program offers Whole Foods customers more information about ranching than they have ever been privy to before — probably as much as they can get short of road-tripping across the country, making pit-stops at every ranch. “This is an industry-changing event taking place,” said Mike Hacaga, team leader for Whole Foods meat section. “For the first time the customer can have an understanding of how the animal was raised.”
Working with a nonprofit dedicated to improving animal treatment, Global Animal Partnership, Whole Foods launched the rating program nationwide on February 2, with color-coded placards giving shoppers the skinny on the meat they’re buying.
The stepped program is designed to help farmers improve their agricultural practices. The conditions of each incremental step build off the preceding ones, peaking at a 5+. The more environmentally enriched an animal’s life, the higher the step. In addition to a life spent outdoors, Step 5 meat has no physical alterations. A 5+ farm animal fulfills all the preceding steps and spends its entire life on the same ranch. Buyers can choose to support conscientious producers committed to changing how farm animals are raised, said Hacaga.
“The step program places a number on the value of what we do for customers,” said David Pitman of Mary’s Free Range Chickens at Pitman Farm. One of approximately 1,200 step-rated farms, Pitman Farm supplies Whole Foods with chicken ranging from Step 3 to Step 5, the latter being a pasture bird that, according to Pitman, has gained tremendous popularity among shoppers.
Whole Foods strives to fulfill its “One store, one standard” goal, said Hacaga. For now, Whole Foods is limited to buying meat products from suppliers that have undergone the complete inspection process. The program is still in its early stages, but in time, all products and prepared foods at Whole Foods will come through step-rated farms. Whole Foods is currently the only retailer that employs the step program but Hacaga hopes that customer demand for better animal treatment will push more retailers to subscribe to programs of this kind.