The new Whole Foods Market in Brighton, open since April, stands less than a mile down Monroe Avenue from the Pittsford Wegmans. Shoppers no doubt compare the two high-profile, competing stores based on price, quality, and service.
But in light of a recent national survey showing that nearly 60 percent of U.S. consumers are more concerned than they were just a few years ago about animal welfare as it relates to food products, we decided to compare the two stores based on their animal welfare standards.
(Other area grocers also have animal welfare standards, but here we limit our comparison to just these two nearby stores.)
Both companies publicly assert the importance of humane treatment of animals and publish standards that govern the animal-based products they carry, such as eggs, poultry, pork, and beef.
Wegmans says, “We believe raising animals for food in a humane way is the only way it should be done.”
Whole Foods says it “has an obligation to safeguard the welfare of animals that provide food for its customers.”
In practice, Whole Foods has strict animal welfare standards for which foods it will and will not carry. Wegmans, on the other hand, carries a range of products and gives shoppers freedom of choice as to which animal-based products they wish to buy or not buy. As such, Wegmans offers some products that Whole Foods declines to carry.
This difference in approach has been noted by animal activists. In its recent “Food Industry Scorecard,” the Humane Society of the U.S. gives Whole Foods an A+ and ranks it first among 100 retailers. “Before any other major food company even adopted (timelines) for phasing out cruel practices,” says the Humane Society, “Whole Foods had fully eliminated these practices from its supply chain.”
The Humane Society scorecard did not include Wegmans as it focused mostly on publicly held companies. Whole Foods is owned by Amazon.com Inc.; Wegmans is privately owned. (Among other companies on the scorecard that sell groceries locally, Target received a C grade, while Aldi, Costco, Trader Joe’s and Walmart all got an F grade.)
“Is Whole Foods dramatically better than Wegmans? It’s not even close,” Josh Balk, former Humane Society vice president for farm animal protection, said in a phone interview. “When it comes to animal welfare, Wegmans is not only behind Whole Foods but many other competitors as well.”
(Disclosure: In the early 1980s, I worked as an attorney for the Humane Society of the U.S.)
Wegmans did not respond to several requests for comment on the Humane Society survey and on other issues we asked about concerning animal welfare policies.
Without getting too lost in details—and there are many when considering different production systems—here’s a brief summary of some of the differences between Whole Foods’ and Wegmans’ practices on animal welfare.
Live lobsters are a small issue by sales volume but a large one in terms of visibility.
On a recent visit to Wegmans, we saw half a dozen live lobsters in a tank. Over the years, this practice has caused some controversy. In 2003, for example, an animal activist tried to feed the lobsters at a Wegmans store; when he refused to leave the store, police were called.
Whole Foods, in contrast, banned the sale of live lobsters from all its stores in 2006. Lobsters have “some degree of awareness, feeling pain and having the ability to learn,” the company said at the time, noting lobsters may spend several months in storage facilities before being displayed in supermarket tanks.
Last year, Whole Foods also stopped selling frozen Maine lobster after sustainability groups reported that lobstering in the Gulf of Maine poses a danger to the rare North Atlantic right whale.
Wegmans did not respond to a request for comment on this issue, but a store employee confirmed that the lobsters in the tank are from Maine.
The practice of confining hens in wire cages so small they cannot spread their wings has long been of concern to animal activists. Until 2007, Wegmans produced its eggs at a company-owned farm in Wolcott. In 2004, animal rights activists entered that farm, which housed 750,000 hens, shot video, and removed 13 hens they believed were ill or dying. The activists were arrested and prosecuted. Wegmans pressed for jail time. One activist, Rochesterian Adam Durand, served time for trespassing. (The activists recounted the incident in a documentary film, “Wegmans Cruelty.”)
Whole Foods has also been the occasional target of animal activists. For many years, a California-based animal rights group, Direct Action Everywhere, demonstrated inside Whole Foods stores claiming that, despite the company’s published animal welfare standards, it was sourcing eggs and other products from farms using cruel production methods. In 2018, Whole Foods sued the group for criminal trespass and won a restraining order.
Today, all Wegmans brand eggs come from an independent farm, Kreher Family Farms, in Clarence. Kreher produces eggs under three systems: eggs from hens kept in wire cages; “Cage Free Eggs,” where hens have some access to the outdoors; and “Pasture Raised” eggs from hens raised on pasture. These systems meet welfare standards set by the United Egg Producers, an agricultural cooperative. Shoppers pay a premium for eggs produced without cages: on a recent store visit, we found Wegmans Grade AA (caged) eggs for 86 cents/lb., cage-free large brown Grade A for $2.67/lb., and Wegmans pasture raised Grade A eggs for $4.53/lb.
Whole Foods does not sell any eggs from caged hens. In the production of eggs and other animal-based foods, the company follows standards set by Global Animal Partnership, a nonprofit founded in 2008, that measures the welfare of farm animals based on a five-step rating program. For eggs, Whole Foods requires all providers to meet the minimum “Cage-Free Plus” standard in which hens can “move about freely” in indoor space. Moving up the five-step rating system, shoppers can choose eggs from hens housed in progressively more natural environments such as “outdoor access,” “pasture raised,” and “outdoor living.” As at Wegmans, shoppers pay more for the higher rated products. On a recent store visit, we found Whole Foods Large Brown Grade A eggs with “outdoor access” selling for $2.86/lb. and Whole Foods “pasture raised” Large Brown Grade A eggs for $3.33/lb.
In summary: the lowest-priced eggs we saw at Whole Foods were $2.86/lb.; at Wegmans, the lowest-priced eggs we saw were 86 cents/lb. Stricter animal welfare standards can come at a high price and may be a luxury not everyone can afford.
At Whole Foods, all meat chickens (“broilers”) produced per Step 1of its five-step animal welfare rating system are raised without antibiotics, growth hormones, or being fed animal by-products such as blood, bones, skin, intestines, etc. Those housed indoors are provided a minimum stocking density, “well managed” bedding, and sufficient amounts of illumination and darkness. Chickens raised according to higher-level standards such as enriched environment, outdoor access and so on are labeled as such on packages. On a recent visit, we saw frozen boneless chicken thighs—labeled Step 2 “enriched environment”—for $5.49/lb.; a similar product labeled Step 3 “outdoor access” was $6.49/lb.
At Wegmans, meat chickens are raised in compliance with animal welfare standards of the National Chicken Council, a trade association of chicken producers. These standards do permit chickens to be given antibiotics and fed animal by-products. The Chicken Council does require some limits on stocking density but published standards do not say what these are. Shoppers can also select more expensive chicken products labeled “no antibiotics” or “organic.” On a recent visit, Wegmans boneless chicken thighs were $3.29/lb—a lower price than any of the comparable products offered at Whole Foods. The organic version of this same Wegmans product was $6.79/lb.
The treatment of female pigs (sows) during the time they are pregnant and later while nursing has been of concern to animal activists. On many industrial farms, pregnant pigs are confined for months in so-called “gestation stalls”—big enough only to stand up and lie down but not to turn around—and then in “farrowing” or birthing crates for more months after giving birth.
Whole Foods prohibits use of gestation stalls and birthing crates in the production of all pork products. Pork products labeled as Global Animal Partnership levels 1-5 indicate pigs were raised with increasing levels of space, outdoor access, and environmental enrichment.
At Wegmans, only higher-priced pork products labeled “antibiotic free” and “organic” are made without gestation stalls or birthing crates. Pigs are raised by Wegmans’ suppliers in accordance with standards set by the North American Meat Institute, a trade association representing meat processors and packers. The group sets standards for transportation and slaughterhouse handling but does not appear to oversee housing or feeding of farm animals during production.
Wegmans regular beef products may be raised with antibiotics, hormones, and animal by-products in the feed. Beef without these additives is labeled as such or labeled “organic.” Standards for the care of beef cattle are of those of the North American Meat Institute, which covers transportation and slaughterhouse handling. Beef labeled “organic” are free range year-round.
At Whole Foods, all beef is produced without antibiotics, hormones, or animal by-products in the feed. Beef labeled as Animal Welfare Certified steps 2-5 is from cattle raised with increasing time on pasture and decreasing time in transport.
The report on the national survey noted above showing increasing consumer concern about treatment of food animals notes that the demand for products with strong animal welfare credentials is likely to grow. “Food companies should view improvement of their animal welfare standing as an essential competitive action,” the report states. If this conclusion is correct, supermarkets that lag on these criteria may continue to offer less-expensive products, but for customers concerned with animal welfare, they may be putting themselves at a competitive disadvantage.
Peter Lovenheim, journalist and author of “In the Neighborhood” and “The Attachment Effect” is Washington correspondent for the Rochester Beacon. He can be reached at [email protected]. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected].