The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Whole Foods Thanksgiving turkeys endure ‘horrific conditions’ at Calif. farm, activists say

Warning: The above video contains graphic imagery.

Just in time for Thanksgiving, an animal-rights activist group has alleged “horrific conditions” at a farm that supplies Whole Foods turkeys — and that the farm is just part of the grocery chain’s misleading claims about the welfare of the animals whose meat it sells.

In a report titled “A Deadly Feast: What you are not told about your Thanksgiving turkey,” an advocacy group called Direct Action Everywhere, known as “DxE,” alleged that Diestel Turkey Ranch operated one “picture perfect” farm with about 400 animals in Sonora, Calif. This farm, the group said, was certified “5+” in an animal-welfare system adopted by Whole Foods. (“Step 1″ is the lowest rating for suppliers who want to be certified: “no cages, no crates, no crowding.” “Step 5+” is the highest: “animal centered, entire life on same farm” with extensive outdoor access.)

However, DxE claimed, “no turkeys raised at the 5+ Sonora farm are actually sold at Whole Foods or anywhere else.”

Whole Foods as well as Diestel Turkey Ranch took issue with the accusations, saying that the activists’ mission was not farm animal welfare, but the elimination of farm animal meat consumption.

“Diestel Turkey Ranch, which has received Whole Foods’ highest rating for animal welfare, operates a showcase farm in Sonora, CA that is heavily promoted in the company’s marketing and described as ‘humane,'” DxE’s report read. “However, the showcase farm does not, in fact, raise any animals for sale — it’s nothing more than a prop.”

DxE said that Diestel’s birds, which can sell for three-digit sums at Whole Foods, came from a larger facility housing up to 17,000 animals in Jamestown, Calif. Conditions here, rated “3” under the Whole Foods system, were not as pristine. After nine visits to Jamestown and a 40-hour investigation, DxE said it found:

  • Turkeys in filthy, noxious, crowded barns.
  • Air inside dense with ammonia, particles of feathers and dried fecal particles.
  • Birds languishing or dead.
  • Birds trapped in feces which covered much of the floor, a half foot deep in some places.
  • Many birds with open wounds and bruises.
  • Diestel records showing up to 7% of the birds dying in a single week.

In a telephone interview, Heidi Diestel, a self-described “4th generation family farmer,” questioned DxE’s claims.

“I can’t speak necessarily to what their allegations are and what their pictures are showing,” she said. “They seem to be close up and out of context. Are they our ranch? Are they not? It’s hard to tell.” Of those who wish to inspect the Diestel ranch, she said: “That door is always open.”

DxE, meanwhile, offered GPS metadata that it said verified its claims the photos were taken at Diestel’s Jamestown facility.

“Unless they teleported the farm from Jamestown to another area, you can see exactly where they are taken,” said DxE investigator Wayne Hsiung in a telephone interview.

Diestel also said that Whole Foods clearly marks which turkeys it sells come from “5+” facilities, making it impossible to pass off a bird grown in one place as one grown someplace else. She also questioned DxE’s motives.

“I think it’s important first of all that we kind of look at the mission of Direct Action Everywhere,” she said. “Their mission is to end farm animals for meat consumption.”

Hsiung did not deny that this is indeed DxE’s goal. However, he questioned why a prominent grocery chain has adopted animal-welfare ratings that don’t seem to accurately represent animals’ welfare.

“Diestel is realistically speaking a small player,” he said. ” Whole Foods is a giant here driving people to do these things. It wants to sell products at a premium. People rely on not the reputation of Diestel, but of Whole Foods.” He added: “People think when they buy Thanksgiving turkey, they are doing something kind for animals. It’s almost like they think they’re donating to an animal shelter.”

Asked about the report, Whole Foods also questioned the motives of DxE.

“It is important to understand the mission of animal activist groups like this one isn’t farm animal welfare but rather a total end to animal agriculture and meat consumption,” Michael Silverman, a spokesman for the chain, said in an e-mail to The Washington Post. “Everything they say, do and show is produced with that specific goal in-mind.”

Silverman explained what Whole Foods had done to address the concerns about Diestel, saying they were unfounded.

“Within hours of this video being brought to our attention, Whole Foods Market sent an expert team to evaluate the conditions of the Diestel farm,” he wrote. “Our team found that the conditions were not as they were portrayed in the video. We go to great lengths to rigorously evaluate all of our suppliers and we maintain the most stringent standards in the industry.” He added: “Whole Foods Market is proud to stand behind the many hard working farmers such as the Diestel family, who are committed to maintaining a high level of animal welfare.”

The DxE report may be yet another hitch in what has proven to be a tough year for Whole Foods. In 2015, the company has apologized for overcharging customers; seen the price of its stock cut in half; and occasionally posted disappointing profits (though recent results were more encouraging).

[Whole Foods admits overcharging, blames employees and apologizes]

Meanwhile, Whole Foods has faced questions about its animal welfare standards. In January, DxE claimed one of the company’s hen suppliers mistreated its animals; in September, the advocacy group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals alleged abuse at a pig farm affiliated with the chain; and, that same week, PETA filed suit, alleging the “step” system is a “sham.”

[Whole Foods’ expensive, “humanely treated" meat is a “sham," PETA lawsuit claims]

“When a grocery store’s standards for improved animal welfare are not actually enforced or do not require meaningfully better treatment for meat animals compared to the industry standard, consumers are deceived into paying a higher price for meat that fails to offer the benefit they seek,” the suit against Whole Foods, filed by PETA in U.S. District Court in Northern California, read.

Hsiung of DxE hoped for change.

“There’s not just factual but moral fraud here,” he wrote in an e-mail. “We would never say that killing our dogs is ok, so long as they are raised in humane fashion. What’s different about a turkey?”