TORONTO – Whole Foods Market in Canada has adopted an animal welfare rating system for its stores’ meat departments. Beef, pork and chicken products are certified under its 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating system. Launched in the United States in February, the company has implemented a similar program in the United Kingdom since 2007.

This system is the signature program of Global Animal Partnership, a nonprofit organization that facilitates and encourages continuous improvement in animal agriculture. Independent, third-party certifiers audit farms and rate animal-welfare practices and conditions using a tiered system that ranges from Step 1 (no crates, cages or crowding) to Step 5+ (animals spend their entire lives on one farm). The system gives shoppers a way to make more informed choices at the meat counter.

"In my 20 years of working with ranchers and farmers in Ontario and across Canada, this is the largest commitment to improving farm animal welfare that I have seen,” said Anne Malleau, global animal production and welfare coordinator for Whole Foods Market. “Producers need to meet approximately 100 requirements to get a Step 1 certification, so achieving the first level is a remarkable accomplishment.

“Whole Foods Market is able to adopt the 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating system thanks to the true partnerships we have with our producers who put just as much emphasis on the lives and welfare of their farm animals as they do on ensuring high-quality products," she added.

More than 1,540 farms and ranches across the US and Canada have received Step certification through independent, third-party certifiers. This includes approximately 200 Canadian producers that provide the company's Canadian stores with product. Color-coded signs and stickers throughout Whole Foods Market meat departments identify these Step ratings.

"I'm proud to be a part of such a forward-thinking program as [this] system," said Vincent Breton, president of Les Viandes du Breton. "Like many animals, pigs are happiest when they're in their natural surroundings, doing the things they love to do, like roam free without being crowded. Having a Step 1 rating, my pigs do just that. They live in a comfortable environment, which can only lead to a higher-quality product."

Step-rated options are now available at all Canadian Whole Foods Market stores. Additional species will receive rating as Global Animal Partnership standards are completed.

Whole Foods Market calls itself the leading natural and organic food retailer and America's first national certified organic grocer, In fiscal year 2010, the company had sales of more than $9 billion and it operates more than 300 stores in the US, Canada and the United Kingdom.