This class action alleges that the 5-Step® Animal Welfare Rating system used by Whole Foods and its subsidiaries, Whole Foods Market California and Mrs. Gooch’s Natural Food Markets, does not significantly improve animal welfare.
The class for this lawsuit is defined as all consumers who purchased meat products at a Whole Foods retail store in California during the four years prior to the filing of the complaint.
Whole Foods is a nationwide grocer offering a wide array of food products, including the unprepackaged chicken, turkey, pork, and beef meat products at the center of this complaint. To ensure the premium nature of its meat products and appeal to those concerned about animal welfare, the complaint alleges, Whole Foods advertises that its meat products as subject to a multi-step certification program, a 5-Step® Animal Welfare Rating system from Global Animal Partnership (GAP).
According to the complaint, the 5-Step® system outlines specific standards and practices to promote animal welfare. Step 1, for example, requires that Whole Foods suppliers “focus intently on the welfare of their animals and meet approximately 100 species-specific standards.” The complaint says that Whole Foods requires at least a Step 1 rating for meat products sold in its retail stores, and that for Steps 2-5+, Whole Foods represents that each successive step requires progressively more intense animal-centered practices. In the meat section of its stores, the complaint claims, Whole Foods advertises these standards using signs, placards, and napkins, and even displays meat according to 5-Step® classification.
According to the complaint, GAP, the organization that set the standards, was set up with funding provided by Whole Foods; it continues to receive the majority of its funding from Whole Foods, and its board members include current and former executives of Whole Foods.
Also, the complaint alleges that key standards required under the 5-Step® rating system are no better or only marginally better than common practices in the industry. For example, according to the complaint, Step 1 specifies that “NO CAGES” are permitted for poultry, yet it is already standard industry practice not to raise broiler chickens (as opposed to egg-laying chickens) in cages.
In addition, the complaint alleges that the Whole Foods audit process and its penalties for noncompliance are insufficient. According to the complaint, GAP requires that producers be audited only once every 15 months, and audits are scheduled rather than surprise visits. Since, according to the complaint, broilers are slaughtered at only seven to eight weeks old, the vast majority of flocks are never inspected.
The complaint also notes that violations of most standards are considered “minor” so that they can be repeated without repercussions. Only if a “minor” violation or nonconformance occurs during a third audit will the supplier lose certification—a full three years and nine months after the violation was first identified. The complaint claims that suppliers with major nonconformances will only lose their certification after the second audit—and possibly not even then, if “efforts to address that non-conformance have been made”.
The complaint thus alleges that Whole Foods and its subsidiaries have violated California consumer protection laws, including the Unfair Competition Law, Consumers Legal Remedies Act, and False Advertising Law.
This lawsuit was filed in September, 2015. We will update its status later this year.