A protester talks to a Whole Foods customer about the chain’s decision to start selling rabbit meat.
A protester talks to a Whole Foods customer about the chain’s decision to start selling rabbit meat.

Who doesn’t like bunnies? Especially when they’re for dinner. Turns out, even the holiest of humane hustlers can’t sell rabbit meat without catching a Whole Foods Market full of grief.

Several organized protests were staged last weekend by animal activists, but for (against?) a cause that seldom appears on the movement’s radar.

The protests—such as they were—came in response to Whole Foods Market’s decision to start selling rabbit meat in select stores. In Washington, D.C., there were several dozen protestors holding signs and marching around Union Station. At a Whole Foods store outside Richmond, there were decidedly fewer people, according to a report from WTVR CBS 6, but the message was the same: “Whole Foods is now serving our pets.”

True enough: rabbit meat is being sold at select Whole Foods stores in the Mid-Atlantic, Northeast, Midwest and Northern California markets, according to the www.rabbit.org.

In a news release, Whole Foods’ officials claimed that lots of its customers “for many years” have been asking the natural foods grocery carry rabbit meat.

“But first we needed to ensure the rabbit we sold would be consistent with WFM’s high animal welfare standards,” the company statement read. “As most rabbit production is grim, we set out to develop our own set of animal welfare standards, which began a rigorous four-year process to address the welfare issues in rabbit production. As we have done in the past, our hope is that our standards will be a model for industry change.”

Whole Foods’ “model standards” require that:

  • Rabbits be allowed to socialize, group pens with solid floors, dry bedding, and room to forage, groom, hop and socialize
  • Continuous access to drinking water, feed, roughage, gnawing blocks, tunnels and places for seclusion
  • Sick or injured animals are treated
  • Mother rabbits time to recover before being re-bred

With the sole exception of that last item, the rest is pretty much mandatory for any producer who intends to make money raising food animals. Feed them? Treat them if they get hurt?


Addressing the real issue

Of course, as much as Whole Foods’ management would love to focus the debate on animal welfare standards, that’s not the issue that concerns people. It’s not about how humane a lifestyle the bunnies enjoy, it’s the fact that they’re killed and eaten. Period.

Call it the fluffy bunny principle: Any animal that’s “cute” doesn’t belong on the menu.

“Whole Foods Market is sensitive to the companion animal issue, and we understand this product won’t appeal to everyone,” Whole Foods spokeswoman Katie Malloy told WTVR. “However, for those customers who have been asking us to carry rabbit, it’s our job to make sure we offer the highest-quality product from responsible sources.”

Nice try, Katie, but no sale.

The issue isn’t how well the rabbits live, it’s the fact that someone’s going to kill them and put their carcasses into a package. Whole Foods has always carried many other varieties of meat products—all of which they claim are raised according to the company’s model standards—and nobody’s lining up to protest the fact that grassfed beef or antibiotic-free pork or free-range chicken are available right next to the teriyaki tofu in the refrigerated case.

And nobody questions Whole Foods’ self-certification of its welfare standards. Its shoppers simply assume that the store makes it suppliers operate humanely.

But it’s a different story with bunnies. Too many urban residents have bunnies as pets. They have names and they’re considered part of the household. They sit on your lap and they playfully hop around the house (bet if they’re confined to a room or two, however). In short, they’re the poster pets for cute and cuddly.

I know because we have a pair of Norwegian Dwarf rabbits—Dashur and Dansur—installed in a four-level “bunny condo” set up in the back entryway to the house. And I have to admit that they’re fun to watch, easy to care for and altogether low-maintenance as far as pets go.

Which is precisely why rabbits are also well-suited to be meat animals. As Mark Pasternak, a Marin County, California, a commercial rabbit farmer who processes more than 10,000 a year told The Atlantic, “They’re easy to raise, and they produce high-quality meat. I don’t think it would be a bad thing if [selling rabbit meat] normalized it or got the American public to eat more of it.”

Maybe that will happen despite the protesting. But even if it doesn’t there’s a definitive upside to this story: We get to sit back and watch Whole Foods take heat from the same ideologues who are almost always on the other side of the picket line.

Usually, the protestors now hammering Whole Foods are busy condemning conventional producers for the “horrors” they (allegedly) inflict on cattle, chickens and pigs, while CEO John Mackey sits back and chuckles all the way to the bank.

Now, he and the chain’s management are getting a big dose of the vitriol they’re only too happy to exploit—only this time it’s aimed at them.

Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator