DxE, PETA, and Whole Foods: What Went Wrong, and how Francione and Abolitionists Predicted It
On January 24th, 2005, seventeen animal rights groups, headed by Peter Singer, released an open letter to Whole Foods Market. The American supermarket chain markets itself as being eco-friendly, while spending up your entire paycheque. In the letter, the chain was praised and supported for their new “Farm Animal Compassionate Standards,” and expressed well wishes for the future. “We hope and expect that these standards will improve the lives of millions of animals,” the letter concluded. Among those signing were PETA, The Humane Society of the United States, and the Animal Welfare Institute. Animal Right International released the letter, and organizations returned to work supporting animal welfare reform. How could this possibly go wrong?
Last week, about eleven years after the original document was released, a second letter came out. This time, with twenty six organizations including PETA signing and condemning Whole Foods for their behaviour. The letter describes atrocities committed by farms that send supply to the market, from hand-snapping bird’s neck to castrating piglets without anesthesia. Neither Singer, the Humane Society, nor Animal Rights International returned to sign this fresh document, which was headed and released by Direct Action Everywhere.
However one identifies on the spectrum of animal rights, Professor and theorist Gary Francione makes an important point worth discussing when he names his Six Principles in his Abolitionist Approach to Animal Rights. “Abolitionists maintain that our recognition of this one basic right means that we must abolish, and not merely regulate, institutionalized animal exploitation, and that abolitionists should not support welfare reform campaigns or single-issue campaigns.” While ethical vegans are varied in how they communicate veganism, denouncing reform and working collectively in favour of no exploitation, as opposed to kinder exploitation, is a the best way to prevent disasters like the current one from happening. Since Francione put his theory on paper over twenty years ago, there has been a wealth of abolitionist thought that is worth exploring, and that can absolutely expand with the next generation of activists.
Consumers have been shocked recently to learn that the humane labels on Whole Foods products perhaps haven’t been up to standards at all. In a lawsuit from PETA, Whole Foods was accused of auditing their farms only once every fifteen months and failing to reprimand farms that had broken their promises. “The entire audit process for Whole Foods’ animal welfare standards is a sham because it occurs infrequently and violations of the standards do not cause loss of certification,” declared PETA. “Standards that are not actually enforced create a false impression of ensuring a more humanely treated, higher quality animal product — when in fact they ensure no such thing.”
It’s ironic that PETA spearheaded such a lawsuit after such high praise in 2005, but not surprising. With animal rights groups so concerned about animal welfare as opposed to abolishing animal use, it creates a perfect situation for companies such as Whole Foods to use arbitrary labels as a means to generate more money for their companies – all while exploiting animals. Ingrid Newkirk, President of PETA, published an Op-Ed in The Dodo with her commentary on the controversy. “PETA’s mission has always been clear: Animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, use for entertainment or abuse in any other way. We have not been purists, however, but pragmatists, recognizing that reducing suffering along the way to animal rights is a step toward that goal, and we have applauded many genuine reforms. But when animal welfare becomes a marketing ploy to increase corporate profits, rather than a way to lessen the suffering of animals, we will speak out.” She writes, “PETA joins over a dozen animal rights organizations in asking where things went wrong…” Abolitionists have been claiming that this would be the result of welfarism since the nineties, when it first started gaining noteoriety as a theoretical standpoint.
What Ms. Newkirk fails to admit is that welfare reform, “genuine” or not, will always still result in the abuse and mistreatment of animals. For example, in 2015, Massachusetts introduced a ballot initiative that would require farmed animals to be able to stand up, lie down, and extend their limbs within confined spaces, and these measures would have to be adopted by farms by 2020. Support was rallied and organizations concentrated their efforts in Boston for the summer, all for an initiative that only buys animals a few more inches of space. But how helpful is this “baby step?” I don’t think it’s wrong or unwise in any way to think critically or lead with suspicion when animal advocacy groups launch major campaigns or praise animal product producers for doing something “differently,” when the steps towards animal liberation aren’t actually liberating any animals at all.
Reform of factory farming and other single issue campaigns have been, and will continue to be, a popular campaigning topic for large scale animal rights organizations, but an alternative exists. We can frame our conversations differently, and explore animal rights theory that doesn’t depend on welfare reform. Perhaps in another ten years, we won’t have to watch the release of letters to major corporations asking them to exploit more kindly. Instead, I look forward to a future where we demand that farmers and businesses do not exploit at all.