• Lawsuit alleges Whole Foods does not effectively enforce the tracking of an animal welfare rating system
  • Claims company violated the California Unfair Competition Law, which prohibits unlawful, unfair, or fraudulent business acts

Earlier this week, the animal protection group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, filed a class action lawsuit against Whole Foods Market in the US District Court Northern District of California that should be closely watched by food retailers and farmers who want to promote high-quality products based on the use of a certification system.

PETA's lawsuit accuses the grocery retailer of misleading customers by portraying its use of a 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating System as a means of promoting animal welfare and the quality of its pork, chicken, and beef products, when such system, according to PETA, does not ensure supplier compliance and barely exceeds common industry practices. PETA is seeking certification of the lawsuit as a class action on behalf of consumers who bought meat and poultry at Whole Foods stores in California during the promotional period. A link to the lawsuit compliant is here.

The lawsuit alleges that back around 2008, Whole Foods helped form and fund the Global Animal Partnership (GAP), a non-profit alliance of producers, retailers, and animal advocates dedicated to improving farm animal welfare. GAP in turn created the noted 5-Step System, which Whole Foods began advertising in select stores by 2009 and nationwide by 2011. The 5-Step System is used by Whole Foods to provide a numerical rating for in-store meat and poultry products that tells consumers the level of humane treatment afforded the animals prior to slaughter. A rating of 1 indicates “no cages, crates or crowding” of the animals. In contrast, a rating of 5+ indicates “animal centered; entire life on same farm.”

But the lawsuit alleges that Whole Foods doesn’t effectively enforce use of the 5-Step System by farmers who sell animal products to the grocery retailer, so there is no way for Whole Foods to ensure the animals in question are more humanely treated and result in a higher quality animal product. For example, the lawsuit claims that the GAP audit process that Whole Foods relies on is too lax to ensure compliance with the 5-Step System, as audits are conducted about once every 15 months and are pre-announced, which results in few violations of GAP standards being caught. In addition, GAP designates violations of most standards as “minor,” so only repeated violations over time can result in significant repercussions to suppliers, such as loss of GAP certification. 

As a result of Whole Foods marketing and promotions involving use of the 5-Step System, the lawsuit alleges the company violated the California Unfair Competition Law, which prohibits any unlawful, unfair or fraudulent business act or practice. The lawsuit further alleges that Whole Foods violated that California Consumer Legal Remedies Act, which, in part prohibits the misrepresentation of the source, sponsorship, approval or certification of goods and services.The lawsuit asks for an injunction blocking the allegedly deceptive practices and restitution to the class members of all money paid to Whole Foods as a result of such practices.