Whole Foods Market is phasing in a new five-step animal welfare rating program for all chicken, beef, and pork products (Click here for their animal welfare page). At the least, all animal products must meet an audited rating of Step 1 to be found in Whole Foods stores. Step 1 is simply labeled "No cages, no crates, no crowding," while Step 5+ (the highest level, with the "plus" denoting it is above Step 5) is "Animal centered; entire life on same farm."

Specifically for beef animals, the current step-rating system requires at least two-thirds of life on range or pasture; no dehorning or horn tipping; allows no antibiotics, growth hormones, or animal by-products; and a maximum 25-hour transport among other requirements in Step 1 (the lowest level).

Requirements get more stringent in later steps. Step 2 requires objects for grooming and scratching and a maximum 16-hour transport. In Step 5, animals must live their entire life on range or pasture, castration is prohibited, branding or ear notching is forbidden, and a maximum 8-hour transport is allowed.

An immediate wonder is the disregard for long-time scientifically accepted practices, especially in the case of dehorning. Other curiosities include requiring that no animals be sold in sale or auction barns (which is a minimum requirement in Step 1) and that on farm or local slaughter is regarded as the best type of treatment (Step 5+).

Of course, Whole Foods is a consumer of our raw products – and a trendy consumer at that. Their product supply will be filled, but it isn't like all animal producers will need to meet the standards of Whole Foods. Some may even argue that the Whole Foods standards are not what is best for the animal.

It should also be noted that end-user consumers didn't ask for these standards, specifically. Sure, they probably asked for the most humanely treated food possible, access to the outdoors, and food that lived a life of happiness. But, the end-user consumers often don't know enough about animals or animal practices to make the specific choices of a five-step rating system.

So who made the choices for Whole Foods?

The group that established the five-step system is Global Animal Partnership. Their board of directors includes the President and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States (if you haven't heard, you can learn more about HSUS at humanewatch.org, a commissioner of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production (responsible for misleading ads like this one: Who's hogging antibiotics?), and a corporate consultant for PETA. If those three wrote the laws governing U.S. animal production for food, it is likely there would be no animal production for food (all three appear to be vegetarian or vegan). Two other world animal compassion and protection groups are also represented.

The board also includes a representative from CROPP/Organic Valley, The CEO of Whole Foods Market, an all-natural beef rancher, and a free-range pig farmer.

Whole Foods' move to rate animal welfare is on a scale that doesn't exactly line up with animal science. But their efforts to create welfare standards should be duplicated (though not necessarily the same standards) by other stores. As farmers, we deserve to be recognized, and rewarded financially, for the passion and fervor we have for animal care. Tomorrow's Whole Foods suppliers are no doubt getting a bigger paycheck for their special management practices, mostly by just being a supplier to Whole Foods. Can we duplicate these bigger paychecks elsewhere?

A great option for dairy standards is the National Dairy FARM program, rolled out by Dairy Management, Inc. (DMI), and the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF). While Whole Foods serves a particular portion of the populace, NMPF and DMI have a very diverse base of potential milk processors and consumers (every single one). Whether the average dairy producer will see an uptick in milk price because of National Dairy FARM's implementation, I don't know. But, like Whole Foods, it is usually better to write the rules yourself, rather than let either government or consumers write them for you.

While nothing in the current Whole Foods manual mentions dairy, we can guess they will update that in time. At the same time, besides some outrageous (probably staged) videos produced by animal rights groups, the dairy industry is on pretty high ground compared to many agriculture industries. In the movie Food, Inc., for example, there are really no negative portrayals of a dairy farm. After all, our animals in the modern-day freestall housing are free to move, have 24-hour access to feed and water, and spend their days on beaches of sand. We care, as do other species owners. But our open barns provide us a big advantage to welcome the public, teach them on the farm, and share our knowledge.

This all comes back to the local food movement, which I see simply as a need for transparency. We aren't just seeing this in food, but we're realizing we can have more transparency as we pick our government (sunlightfoundation.com), our news (twitter.com), and even music (teen pop sensation Justin Bieber wasn't found in a bar, audition, or through demo tape, but on YouTube) because of today's low-cost high-tech world.

Are you jumping on the transparency bus? Or is it just another fad?