U.S. News

08.19.14

Whole Foods Wants to Feed You Cute, Furry Bunnies

Are bunnies cute—or delicious? Whole Foods is launching a pilot program to sell the meat, and activists are up in arms. But it turns out Americans have a long history of eating rabbit.

Are bunnies as delicious as they are cute? Whole Foods has launched a pilot program to find out, sparking protests from outraged pro-rabbit activists.

On Sunday, rabbit-lovers organized a national day of action to draw attention to the production and sale of rabbit meat at the grocery chain, warning that dogs and cats could be slaughtered for meat next and accusing Whole Foods of being “bunny butchers.”

Proving that virtually everything has an advocacy organization, the House Rabbit Society helped design leaflets adorned with adorable bunny pictures for protesters. And one petition asking Whole Foods to stop selling rabbit meat already has more than 13,000 supporters.

But you know who doesn’t have a problem eating rabbit meat? Rabbits. The critters have the propensity to devour their babies if alarmed and so require a calm environment for breeding.

Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease also savaged the domestic rabbit population during outbreaks in 2000 and 2001, according to the USDA. It's a terrifying disease, characterized by spasms and sometimes followed by fatal bleeding from the nose and mouth.

For its part, Whole Foods has said its pilot program was launched after a four-year process to design a system of rabbit-slaughtering that maintains high standards of animal welfare. The grocery chain said it was making an entry into the rabbit market after demand from shoppers for the gamey offering.

“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.”

“Whole Foods Market is sensitive to the companion animal issue and we understand this product won’t appeal to everyone,” Mike Silverman, a Whole Foods spokesman, told The Daily Beast. “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. As we have done in the past, our hope is that our high standards will be a model for industry change.”

The consumption of rabbit meat has a long, honorable history in the United States. Considered a “patriotic food” during World War II, rabbits were raised alongside the venerable victory gardens on the homefront. Even before the war, Americans were being encouraged to eat rabbits. In 1933, the Spokane Daily Chronicle reported that “Housewives Find That Rabbit Meat on Menu Makes Big Hit With Men at Dinner.” And in World War I, hares were advertised as a “good martial diet.”

But today’s demand for rabbit meat is niche, especially compared to beef, chicken, or pork. There were some $7 million in rabbit meat sales in 2000, according to the USDA, compared to $41 billion for cattle.

But every few years a news article will tout the increased popularity of rabbit as an American dinner item. It was “on the rise” in 1998. “Producers can't ship rabbit meat fast enough,” an Associated Press report declared in 2005. “Are Rabbits the New Super Meat?” asked Modern Farmer last year.

Producers also said rabbit meat demand was growing in 1977, when President Jimmy Carter vetoed a government rabbit meat inspection program, arguing that it would benefit only a small group of consumers. Should more domestic rabbit meat production be pursued, Carter argued, American relations with China could be strained, as the Chinese exported rabbit meat to the United States.

With reporting from Asawin Suebsaeng