by Margo DeMello
Whole Foods Market is getting the rabbit meat for their customers from rabbit growers (ie breeders) across two states: Iowa and Missouri. In both states, the rabbits are then purchased by Iowa Rabbit LLC, under the DeBruin Brothers brand, and once they reach just 8 weeks of age, they are trucked to a processing plant in Jewell, Iowa, where they are slaughtered.
Whole Foods has made much of the fact that the rabbits who will be killed to feed their customers will be living in better conditions than most meat rabbits—they will, according to Whole Foods, be raised and kept in “humane standards” that are better than those typically seen in the rabbit meat industry. Most of the details in Whole Foods’ Pilot Animal Welfare Standards are common sense, rather than humane standards—ie Feeders must be clean and free of debris, All rabbits must have continuous access to drinking water, Rabbits must be handled in a calm manner, If a rabbit is injured or sick, he or she must receive treatment. Rabbits must not be given feed that is moldy, mildewed or otherwise compromised in quality, etc.
But the biggest issue that Whole Foods is promoting with respect to the humane standards by which their rabbits will be raised has to do with the group living. Most breeder rabbits are raised in single cages for their entire lives (typically about two years until they are “spent,” and then slaughtered as “roasters.”)
Whole Foods’ “Executive Leadership Team,” in responding to House Rabbit Society’s concerns, had this to say:
Our animal welfare standards for rabbit are designed around their instinctual behaviors and include more than 75 species-specific requirements that ensure the overall health and well-being of the animals. These standards are a direct result of a rigorous four-year process to address the welfare issues in rabbit production.
By this, Whole Foods is referring to allowing both breeding females (“does,”) as well as males (“bucks,”) to live in group conditions, as is natural for them, as social animals, as well as giving them space “to express their natural behavior such as allo-grooming, hopping, foraging, gnawing, and playing.”
How much space should the rabbits have to forage and play? Whole Foods says “Stocking density must not exceed 2lbs/square foot.” In other words, if an adult New Zealand weighs 8 pounds, he or she would need a 2 foot by 2 foot space. Add in more rabbits, and the size demands would increase. For a mother and her eight babies, she would need approximately a 2 1/8 foot square space. These are the standards that Whole Foods has devised and yet these are the same size standards that were already typically found in the industry prior to this time. From Stories Rabbits Tell:
Typically American breeders keep half a dozen fryers together in a cage that is about twenty-four inches by thirty inches, a size that seems impossibly small, given the very high activity levels of young rabbits. Does with babies are also kept in cages of this size. (Davis and DeMello 2003, 242)
Yet in the same document, Whole Foods’ Pilot Animal Welfare Standards for Rabbits says:
While it is the intention of Whole Foods Market to raise rabbits in as natural setting as possible, we recognize that raising breeding and replacement does in groups is not commonplace and an increase in aggression may occur.
Does can be kept individually only if it is necessary to minimize aggression
So even though Whole Foods would like to tell the public that breeding does get to live in groups, the reality is that they CAN be kept isolated in order to keep aggression down.
For males, the document says:
Bucks must be kept either:
i) permanently with breeding and replacement does OR
ii) in an individual pen adjacent to the group pen where they can see and smell their breeding group
So males too can be kept individually.
For the babies, called “fryers,” they must be kept together. But this in fact is industry standard, because they will only live for 8 weeks until they are slaughtered, so there is nothing humane or unusual about this standard.
With respect to breeding, the Whole Foods standards ask that rabbits are not bred before 6 months and that they are not re-bred until the babies are weaned, at 30 days. But that still means that the does can be re-bred (known as “bred back”) every 30 days; which means as often as 12 times per year.
Finally, while these standards are minimal at best, it’s difficult to know how any of the farms could possibly be monitored to ensure compliance. Iowa Rabbit, under the De Bruin Brother label, buys their rabbits from hundreds of farms throughout Iowa and Misssouri (according to a veterinarian who works for W&G, the company which owns Iowa Rabbit), so one wonders how any standards at all could be maintained across all of these farms. For example, they advertise in breeder newsletters like this one asking to buy:
healthy, antibiotic free, fryers on a weekly basis. Fryers must be New Zealand White or Californian breeds weighing 4.75 pounds up to 5.75 pounds. Fryers must be under 12 weeks of age, and we purchase roasters and stewers as well.
Davis, Susan E. and Margo DeMello. 2003. Stories Rabbits Tell: A Natural and Cultural History of a Misunderstood Creature. New York: Lantern Press