Whole Foods Market is known for its high quality and high prices, but now some critics question whether the grocery chain is living up to its own high standards in its rabbit meat pilot program.
In the summer of 2014, the grocery chain started to offer rabbit meat in select markets across the country, including the Bay area.
The Investigative Unit obtained USDA inspection reports for Iowa Rabbit, the farm that supplies Whole Foods Market with its rabbit meat. An analysis of the reports and a review of what are believed to be internal sales numbers show that consumer demand and animal welfare may both be much lower than what Whole Foods has suggested.
Whole Food’s decision to to sell rabbit meat set off a fierce debate for activists who view rabbits as pets, not a source of protein.
“I live with two rescue rabbits and it hurt my heart,” Tara Baxter, co-founder of the Rabbit Advocacy Network, said. “I expected more from Whole Foods.”
Baxter says she worries most of all about Whole Foods’ power to set trends.
“If they create a demand for a new meat, that means every grocery store across the country is going to follow suit,” Baxter said.
Whole Foods Market obtains its rabbits from a farm called Iowa Rabbit. Through the Freedom of Information Act, the Investigative Unit obtained inspection records for the farm. The records revealed several observations that may not be in keeping with Whole Foods’ stated animal welfare standards.
Included in those records, are the numbers of rabbits that were found either “dead in the yard” or “dead on arrival” before they were slaughtered.
Many days, none were dead. But on a single day in March, 30 were “dead in the yard.” In July, 38 where “dead on arrival” in a single day.
The actual rate of rabbit deaths is unclear because Iowa Rabbit declined to share the total number of rabbits processed on those days. Moreover, the government doesn’t have a standard for an acceptable death rateon rabbit farms.
“They’re being factory farmed just like any other factory farmed animal,” Baxter said.
Inspection reports further reveal the USDA sent a “letter of caution” warning Iowa Rabbit for sending out multiple cartons of rabbit meat improperly labeled as USDA inspected when they were not. That prompted the plant to issue a voluntary recall.
Another USDA memo sent to Iowa Rabbit in October 2014 found “pelted rabbits” – those that have been skinned -- routinely coming into contact with “non-pelted rabbits which most of the time have grossly contaminated pelts.”
Inspectors also found “fecal smears on [the] back in tail area” of rabbits in their final rinse.” The USDA noted “contamination” is “best avoided” because it’s not “planned on being removed later in the process.”
Whole Foods says that “no crates, cages or tethers” are permitted from its rabbit suppliers, but in a February 2015 report, USDA inspectors observed “wet rabbits in bottom crates.” The inspectors wrote, “This is a concern both as an animal welfare issue, and as a sanitary dressing issue.”
Whole Foods has also said that “food and water are always available” for the rabbits it purchases. But in a January, 2015 report, inspectors found “rabbits ‘overnighted’ in crates during cold weather” had no access to water because the water sources “tended to freeze.”
Iowa Rabbit farms declined our requests for an interview but in a statement. Iowa Rabbit said
“We proudly produce rabbit for U.S consumers in our USDA inspected plant. We also take pride in our animal care and food safety practices which we are confident are among the best in the nation.”
The statement continued,
“Records obtained by your station under the Freedom of Information Act are incomplete because they only contain observations made by the USDA but do not include the actions taken by our company in response to those observations.”
Iowa Rabbit did not provide The Investigative Unit with records showing the actions the company took.
Some say the reports are less shocking in context.
“What I saw in the USDA reports were just minor corrections that were an ongoing process,” Rich Larson, a food science instructor at San Jose State University, said.
“The context of this is slaughtering animals. Fecal matter is part of what's going to be present in that process. To keep it from getting to the consumers is the concern,” Larson said.
But Rabbit advocates say consumers might not be getting the whole story.
“They’re farming these animals in a state where it’s illegal for people to actually go and get footage of how the animals are being raised,” Marcy Schaaf said. She runs Save a Bunny rabbit rescue in Mill Valley and started the other Rabbit Advocacy Network with Baxter.
Iowa is one of six states with so-called “Ag Gag” laws on the books, which allows authorities to prosecute people who take undercover video or photos of farm activity without consent.
Whole Foods says it is trying only to respond to customer demand.
“For many years, lots of customers have requested that we carry rabbit,” the company wrote in an online press release. But the numbers tell a different story. An internal Whole Foods source provided the Rabbit Advocacy Network with what are believed to be actual sales numbers. The figures show that across the 41 stores in the Northern California District, each store sold an average of 5 rabbits per week.
The NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit went undercover to stores all over the Bay Area to see if they carried rabbit meat. Almost all of them did, but employees admitted they weren’t big sellers.
Whole Foods declined to provide NBC Bay Area with actual numbers quantifying the demand for rabbit meat. They also declined interview requests to ask about the USDA inspection reports. The company referred us to its website where it says Whole Foods underwent a “rigorous four-year process to address the welfare issues in rabbit production.”
Meanwhile, a petition to get Whole Foods to stop selling rabbit has collected more than 42,000 signatures.
The Whole Foods pilot program enters its one-year anniversary this summer. The company remains silent on whether it will continue to sell rabbit meat.
Other grocery store chains, including Sprouts, discontinued selling rabbit meat after protests and complaints from customers.