When Amazon purchased Whole Foods last month, it didn’t just get the retail locations. It picked up Whole Foods’ baggage as well. Among the bigger issues inherited by Amazon appears to be a four-month investigation from the animal rights group Direct Action Everywhere that challenges Whole Foods’ core selling point of healthy and humane food.
The group accused Pitman Family Farms, the maker of Mary’s Free Range Chicken and a supplier to Whole Foods in six Western states, of breaking its promises of free-range environments for its birds.
Direct Action Everywhere, whose mission is to create animal welfare-friendly cities and outlaw some of the practices of factory farming, visited a dozen Pitman farms and never once saw a chicken roaming outside. The group reported that it found no indications of outdoor living, such as feathers or fecal matter. Twenty-four hour surveillance cameras attached to six separate locations revealed no outdoor birds either, the activists said. Instead, chickens were packed shoulder-to-shoulder inside dusty sheds with degraded air quality, forced to challenge one another for access to food and water.
Video of Direct Action Everywhere’s findings showed scattered fighting among the chickens, and smaller birds with injuries, including one with its eye pecked out. They also alleged evidence of “debeaking,” a procedure involving severing the tip of a chicken’s beak with a laser to prevent pecking.
“We saw things that even shocked us,” Dr. Wayne Hsiung, co-founder of the group, told The Intercept in an interview. Hsiung characterized the overcrowding as the worst he’s ever seen at a poultry farm, with investigators nearly unable to walk through the flocks without stepping on birds.
The investigation took place from January to May at roughly a dozen Pitman farm locations in California’s San Joaquin Valley. Hsiung alleged no meaningful difference between the farms, and reported no evidence of free-range activity. “We couldn’t find a single bird outside,” he said.
“We saw things that even shocked us,” said Dr. Wayne Hsiung. “We couldn’t find a single bird outside.”
Pitman Family Farms claims to be certified by the Global Animal Partnership program, a non-profit animal welfare organization. Whole Foods funded GAP, and two of its staffers are Whole Foods employees.
GAP rates farms with a “five step” scale. Most of Pitman’s facilities – including the ones visited by Direct Action Everywhere – carry a three rating, meaning that birds have space to move around; an outdoor free-range area with shade and at least 25 percent vegetative cover; farmers don’t use growth hormones or antibiotics in feed; and birds do not undergo physical alterations like debeaking. Videos on the Pitman website showcase its one “Step 5” farm, according to the GAP ratings, where birds live permanently on pasture. Direct Action Everywhere claims the conditions at the farms it visited were markedly different.
While activists confirmed that Pitman used “slow-growing” Rhode Island Red chickens, which aren’t bred to grow very big quickly and have fewer health problems, the conditions alleged at the farm actually prolong the birds’ suffering, according to Hsiung. “Cage-free, slow-growing, it’s not better or worse, just different,” he said. “These animals have to endure a longer life in miserable conditions.”
Because the farms are so massive, with tens of thousands of animals sometimes supervised by a single employee, activists found it easy to access the sheds. “You just walk in. They even have unlocked doors,” said Hsiung.
Direct Action Everywhere claimed that it’s now impossible to secure undercover employment at these sites, previously a common technique employed by animal rights activists. When the activists get reports of mistreatment, they feel a moral and legal necessity to step in, citing law journal reviews on the subject. “When we know a company is lying, we open up the doors,” he said.
Pitman Family Farms sells poultry through high-end markets like Whole Foods in California, Washington, Oregon, Arizona, Nevada, and Hawaii, and employs a workforce of around 500 employees at over 80 different sites. Product quality and animal welfare is a hallmark of the Mary’s Free Range Chicken brand.
Pitman Farms’ David Rubenstein told The Intercept late Thursday night, “At Pitman Farms, we raise chickens for many different customers. The barn in question houses chickens that are not part of the slow growth, or free range programs.” He added that “the farm shown in the video is not GAP certified.” The chickens in the video were being housed to “help protect them from outside disease, and will be soon transferred to another barn, where eggs will be harvested,” Rubenstein said.
Pitman Farms’ website does not describe any products aside from free-range chicken, nor does it say they use non-GAP farms or sell eggs. The brand is built around animal welfare; in promotional videos, members of the Pitman family speak of animal welfare across their farming enterprise. “All of the chickens we raise, we call them ‘free-range,’” said Rick Pitman in one video. Nowhere in Pitman Farms’ promotional material is any mention made of farms that don’t comply with humane standards. Direct Action Everywhere claims that they visited a dozen Pitman farms with no appreciable difference in the conditions. Rubenstein, however, insisted, “Without a doubt, the Mary’s branded packages claiming ‘free-range’ and sold at Whole Foods were grown on farms certified, and audited, by the Global Animal Partnership.”
“Time and time again they make the same robotic denial.”
Within hours of Direct Action Everywhere releasing their report, Whole Foods’ Twitter feed responded to complaints with the exact same language: “We don’t source chicken from the facility in this video; we only source chicken from Pitman farms that are GAP certified for animal welfare.” A Whole Foods spokesperson made the same assertion to The Intercept: The chickens in the video are not from a GAP certified facility, nor are they processed where Whole Foods’ GAP-rated chickens are handled.
The Pitman website indicates that all their farms are GAP-rated, so it’s unclear how there could be an unrated farm from which Whole Foods doesn’t acquire chickens. Hsiung expressed skepticism at Whole Foods’ response to the controversy. “We have reached out to Whole Foods to show them investigations,” he said. “Time and time again they make the same robotic denial.” Hsiung also alleged that Whole Foods tweeted their denials before they could reasonably have checked in with Pitman to investigate.
Consumers have shown growing interest in more humanely raised food, including free-range chickens. But there is no recognized federal definition of “free-range” or “pasture-raised” goods in food labeling. The Food Safety Inspection Service allows these terms to be placed on poultry if agribusinesses “provide a brief description of the birds’ housing conditions.” While the claims are supposed to be evaluated, there is virtually no on-site confirmation. The U.S. Department of Agriculture often relies on third-party verifications like GAP, including for Mary’s Free Range Chicken.
“The industry is in bed with the government,” said Hsiung. “I’m a former securities lawyer. It’s similar to the financial industry. The USDA’s mission statement is to promote agriculture. You can’t promote the industry and guard against the industry’s abuses. It’s like trying to be a lawyer for both sides of a litigation.”
This is Direct Action Everywhere’s second investigation alleging a Whole Foods supplier claiming inaccurate “free-range” standards. Revelations against Diestel Turkey Ranch in 2015 led to a California lawsuit for false advertising. The case is still pending.
Amazon has faced negative headlines for problems with working conditions at its warehouses. By buying a grocery, they face a whole new set of risks from suppliers, which could damage its reputation as a high-end provider.
Update: Sept. 15, 2017, 9:52 a.m.
This piece was updated to include Pitman Family Farms’ denial that the farms surveyed by Direct Action Everywhere provided products labeled as “free-range” to Whole Foods.