In the Whole Foods on P Street in Washington, D.C.—somewhere between the dairy section, the dairy-alternative section, and the aisles of aromatherapy soap and organic toothpaste—the unlikeliest of protests erupted on Monday afternoon. The demonstrators were thin, they wore backpacks, they carried white carnations, and one of them walked a medium-sized poodle. On their white, red and black placards, they declared “UNTIL EVERY ANIMAL IS FREE” and “IT’S NOT FOOD, IT’S VIOLENCE.”
“We are staging a nonviolent demonstration to disrupt speciesism, which is mass violence against animals across the United States,” Zachary Groff, a spokesman for Direct Action Everywhere, the group who organized the protest, told me as an increasingly impatient female security guard looked on.
The term “speciesism,” according to Veganism.com, first gained popularity in the 1970s among vegans as a way to describe discrimination against living creatures other than humans. Direct Action Everywhere’s stated goal is “total animal liberation, defined as an end to arbitrary discrimination on the basis of species.” Or, put another way, the end of animal slaughter and the beginning of an entirely vegan society.
I self-consciously looked down at my basket, set down beside me on the linoleum, to see if there were any animal products in it. Just oranges, blueberries, coconut water, and relief.
“Whole Foods sells its products as being humane, responsibly raised and other taglines,” Groff said, “but we did an investigation into their farm, and it showed what we already know deep down—that there is no humane way to kill someone who does not want to die.”
By “someone,” he meant poultry.
In January, Direct Action Everywhere released footage from inside Petaluma Farms, in Northern California, where laying hens supply the eggs sold by Whole Foods and Organic Valley. What they found was similar, though less gruesome, than the scenes you may be familiar with if you’ve seen documentaries like Food, Inc.: animals crammed into dark spaces together, often crushed by the weight of their own bodies. In the first scene of their nearly 20-minute ad, they find a hen who appears on the verge of death, sprawled out on the dirt.
“We rescued two hens who had been left to die by Whole Foods,” Groff said, while the protesters chanted “It’s not food, it’s violence!”
As they shouted, incidentally, they made their way to the refrigerated meat-alternative section of the store which sells things like Upton’s Naturals Seitan (in Italian and Chorizo flavors), Yves Veggie Pepperoni and Vegenaise (vegan mayonnaise).
Whole Foods Market Inc. was founded in 1980 in Austin by John Mackey, a free-market libertarian who believes his business is the preeminent example of “conscious capitalism” in America. Whole Foods has been needled by the left wing before: for Mackey’s insistence, in a 2013 interview with the liberal magazine Mother Jones, that although he is “not a ‘climate-change skeptic,’” he does believe that “climate change is perfectly natural and not necessarily bad”; for Mackey’s alleged roadblocking of unionization; and for advertising hocus pocus pseudoscientific health cures on its shelves.
More recently, Whole Foods has been criticized for ripping off customers, after the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs investigated and found “systematic overcharging for pre-packaged foods.”
Left-wing attacks on Whole Foods have not typically been lobbed from animal welfare activists, however, and for obvious reasons.
Mackey, a vegetarian when he founded Whole Foods and now a vegan, has made ethical treatment of animals a priority. The company’s website boasts its “Animal Welfare Rating Standards,” called “The 5-Step®.” It has rules like no crates or cages for animals, and claims to favor allowing animals to spend time outdoors. As Whole Foods has made the ascent from mere health food store to lifestyle brand, its practices, including ethical farming, have become trendy and popular. It’s why you see Dunkin’ Donuts announcing cage-free eggs in breakfast sandwiches, and McDonald’s claiming it will make chicken sandwiches without antibiotics.
So why target Whole Foods, I wondered, and not, say, any of the million other businesses that make no effort at all? You’re not likely to find a soy cheese pizza at Dominos, or steamed tofu at a barbecue joint, after all.
The answer, according to Groff and Wayne Hsiung, a lawyer from Palo Alto and the founder of Direct Action Everywhere, is that Whole Foods’ desire to be “ethical” in their treatment of animals is the most destructive thing about them. By insinuating that anything about the raising of animals for slaughter can be done humanely or compassionately, they believe, is to deceive the public on a grand scale.
“Whole Foods is leading the way in building a terrifying new world where killing is an act of compassion,” Hsiung says in the group’s video. “So many companies are following in its footsteps, because that’s where the money is–but it’s a house of lies.”
Since January, Direct Action Everywhere has staged protests in “probably over 30 Whole Foods around the country,” according to Groff. They’ve also protested Chipotle, the Mexican chain restaurant that purports to only use the meat of ethically-raised cows, pigs and chickens.
A spokesman for Whole Foods, Michael Silverman, told me Whole Foods is “certainly aware of their activities.” Their point of view, however, is “one where we cater to the dietary choices of all of our shoppers: that includes vegans, vegetarians and carnivores. Direct Action Everywhere’s perspective is pretty simple: a complete end to animal agriculture,” he said. “There’s a basic disconnect in our philosophy.”
In other words, Whole Foods is unlikely to ever become a vegan supermarket chain, because the majority of its customers are not vegan.
After the protest ended, at the behest of the growing number of security guards, I made my way to the salad bar. As I made my salad, Hsiung ran up to me—seeming slightly out of breath. He wanted my contact information, he said, so I typed my email address into his phone. The protesters were making their way to the White House, where chicken noodle soup is served every day.