For over a decade, “Certified Humane” has been the gold standard of animal welfare around the world, supported by over 60 prominent animal advocacy organizations, including the Humane Society of the United States. Whole Foods, with its 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating, has been hailed as a hero of the animal rights movement; but an open investigation by Direct Action Everywhere has revealed that this fame and fortune was built on a foundation of lies—and is taking the entire house down with it.

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On January 8th, Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) released an investigation of a “Certified Humane,” “cage-free” Whole Foods supplier, and what it uncovered is shocking. Hens crammed into 1.5 square feet of space each and drowning in their own feces, only able to survive by eating the filth that surrounded them. Rampant slicing of birds’ sensitive beaks, in violation of “Certified Humane” policy. And contrary to Whole Foods CEO John Mackey’s promise of “no mutilations,” the investigation uncovered the company’s producer to be ripping off birds’ entire wings. International protests ensued throughout the weekend.

The True Face of Humane Farming

Such were the conditions encountered in a farm that adheres to standards stricter than any animal welfare law in the US. These conditions beg the question: behind all of the marketing ploys, is there something fundamentally wrong with animal agriculture? If the best of the best is this evil, can there ever be a “humane” way to use and slaughter animals?

Whole Foods would certainly have you believe so. It recently launched a 20-million-dollar ad campaign, “Values Matter,” in which the company touts its commitment to animals. The campaign includes posters of animals saying, “Know What Kind of Life Your Dinner Lived – asking us not to reflect on the life the chicken lived, but on the life our dinner lived, simultaneously individualizing animals while objectifying them as ours to consume. In another bizarre advertisement, Whole Foods claims that by eating animals from its stores, you actually save them from death: “CHOOSE A FISH – COOK A FISH – SAVE A FISH”.

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Whole Foods has opened a scary frontier in consumer marketing. You’ve heard of greenwashing, when BP claims to care for the environment while pouring barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. This is humanewashing: increasing profits by employing compassionate imagery and rhetoric to manipulate public sympathy for animals. Further, Whole Foods’ humanewashing is not just factual, but also moral fraud: it completely ignores the victim’s perspective by masking the inherent violence of slaughter. A corpse sold by any company is the body of someone who didn’t want to die.

To make matters worse, their treatment of animals is almost as fraudulent as their marketing. In 2009, Whole Foods instituted its 5-Step Animal Welfare program, which we refer to as Cruelty by Numbers. With Cruelty by Numbers, one can choose how much cruelty to inflict on the animals one eats. Animals are sold on a scale of one to five, from “No cages, no crates, no crowding” to the most humane: “Animal centered, entire lives on the same farm.” Little lies behind the catchy marketing: castration of baby pigs and slicing off of cows’ horns, for example, are routine occurrences at Whole Foods farms in accordance with the welfare rating. To put the icing on the cake, while Whole Foods states that “Step ratings are assigned by independent third-party certifiers using auditors trained by Global Animal Partnership,” its most recent tax documents reveal that almost 95% of the Global Animal Partnership’s funds come from Whole Foods itself.

Snatching Consumers—and Stealing the Movement

These fraudulent practices exist for a reason: because they are the foundation of Whole Foods’ profits. Whole Foods has risen to become the second most valuable grocery chain in the US ($17 billion, double that of other industry giants such as Safeway) through not just the sale of products, but of ideas. It admits in its 2012 regulatory filings that its largest customer base– “Conscionables”– supports Whole Foods not for grocery items, but because it believes the company helps animals and the environment. Not surprisingly, customers must pay more as the rating increases, since purchasing animals labeled “5” allows customers to have their cake and eat it, too—to pat themselves on the back for making a “humane” choice while not having to abstain from eating animals (Heaven forbid!).

Similarly, what’s true for the public is true for the movement. Whole Foods and companies like it have successfully stolen much of the movement’s momentum, and have systematically lied to gain the support of some of the movement’s most prominent figures. While the company has earned the praise of most large animal advocacy groups, the most symbolic item of note is that its CEO, John Mackey, sits on the board of HSUS—the largest animal advocacy group in the US and the second largest on Earth. Whole Foods, through unchecked humanewashing, has convinced the animal rights movement that they are one of the “good guys” who should be supported, not protested.

In doing so, the company represents a much larger and more insidious response by animal agriculture to the growing animal rights movement. Aware that the public is learning more about the suffering of animals in farms and slaughterhouses, and is becoming more sympathetic to messages of animal rights, the industry has sought to morally isolate itself from the inherent violence of slaughter and animal use by singling out certain practices and marketing the rest as “humane.”

In 1991, Ronald Duchin, former special assistant to the Secretary of Defense, gave a speech to the Cattleman’s Association in which he outlined three critical steps in eliminating the threat animal liberationists pose to their business:

  1. Isolate the radicals.
  2. Cultivate the idealists and educate them into becoming realists.
  3. Co-opt the opportunists into agreeing with the industry.

Humanewashing fires on all of these cylinders. It condemns animal rights activists who demonstrate at humanewashers like Whole Foods and Chipotle—even though these companies each kill hundreds of millions of animals per year (Step 1). It convinces many, with marginal and often fraudulent animal welfare policy changes, to stay quiet about the issue, and move to the other side of the aisle (Step 2). Finally, it co-ops opportunists by convincing them that their supporters, readers, and viewers will be jeopardized if they take what is perceived as the “extreme” course of action, and to celebrate “victories” of industry-nonprofit compromise (Step 3). One only needs to look around to see that these tactics, strategically formulated by the biggest players in animal agriculture, have dealt a paralyzing blow to our movement.

The New Frontier

There’s a hopeful ending to this story. This response by animal ag is fundamentally fraudulent and contradictory—and leaves them open to be hit where it hurts. Direct Action Everywhere, among other groups (such as Collectively Free and Deaf Empowerment for Animal Freedom) are using new tactics to move away from the standard “factory farming is bad” narrative and open up a new frontier of the animal rights movement.

The most controversial of these are in-store demonstrations. These protests seek to nonviolently provoke the public into seeing normalized settings, such as a restaurant or a meat counter, for what they really are: profoundly violent places where animals’ bodies are hacked apart and sold. While they have received criticism from both the public and notable groups in the movement for being too provocative and even edging on the absurd, one should note that this is in fact what these demonstrations attempt to achieve. Absurdity is deviance from what is normal, which in our society is violence against animals. In order to change what is perceived as normal – and get people to see “meat” not as food, but as the body of a sensitive creature who wanted to live – one must provoke and risk being labeled absurd. Although the occasional customer backlash is often labeled a sign of inefficacy, it’s in fact the opposite: while most people hate confrontational demonstrations, they’re often the most effective at changing people’s minds. As Columbia social scientist Robert Shapiro puts it, “Americans don’t like protests. But protests may work anyway.

With the campaign, DxE is also launching an international network to facilitate open rescue: civil disobedience in which one rescues animals from farms openly, without concealing one’s identity. Inspired by famous actions by Australia’s Animal Liberation Victoria, open rescue combines the benefits of many different tactics. At much lower cost, one can rescue animals from abuse who otherwise would have been left behind in an undercover investigation. Openly showing one’s face, and individualizing the activist, often garners much more public sympathy for those rescuing animals than masked ALF-style actions. It finally presents a way of combating stifling ag-gag laws, which hinder and criminalize undercover investigations. With hope, luck, and most importantly, the determination of thousands of activists, this network may serve as the kindling for the largest liberation movement in history.

As powerful as these tactics may be, they are only effective when used to spark dialogue in your own community. As distressing as the reality is – violent corporations lying to the public and quelling dissent in the movement – it’s vital that each and every one of us act in response. So please, join us in standing up and saying what we mean this weekend, in an international day of action. The new frontier starts with you.

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