House Rabbit Society celebrates after Whole Foods says it will cease rabbit meat sales

Shopping at Whole Foods in Berkeley on Wednesday to benefit Rosie the Riveter programs

Last year, we reported about how Richmond-based House Rabbit Society launched a campaign to convince Whole Foods Market to stop selling rabbit meat.

The story sparked a heated debate over whether rabbits should be considered pets, food or both and prompted allegations that farmed rabbits have been mistreated. Throughout the year, the Richmond Standard received hundreds of passionate comments from readers on both sides of the issue.

This week, we learned of a major development in the story: Whole Foods announced it will cease to sell rabbit meat by January of next year, or as soon as it sells out of its remaining product.

The rabbit meat sales have been part of a pilot program launched during the summer of last year in select markets — including Northern California stores, according to Whole Foods.

“The pilot ultimately revealed the sales volume did not justify the continuation or expansion of the pilot to a national program,” the company said.

But some say the decision to end the program was the result of pressure from rabbit advocates, along with investigations into allegations of animal abuse and mishandling by farmers.

Groups such as the House Rabbit Society, a national nonprofit organization headquartered at 148 Broadway in Richmond, and San Rafael-based SaveABunny, organized protests and garnered signatures from more than 50,000 people opposing rabbit meat sales.

The House Rabbit Society is set to hold peaceful protests at Whole Foods Market stores nationwide Sunday to oppose a recent decision to sell rabbit meat.

In May, an NBC Bay Area investigation called into question whether Iowa farmers have been mistreating and mishandling rabbits that end up in Whole Foods stores. The news agency obtained U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) documents that revealed instances where rabbit farmers had failed to meet Whole Foods’ stated quality standards.

“We could not be more excited that Whole Foods has decided to listen to their customers, and pet lovers across the country, and ended their sale of rabbit meat,” Margo DeMello, President of House Rabbit Society, said in a statement.

Rabbit advocates have pointed to a 2012 American Pet Products Association (APPA) survey contending that 2.5 million households live with rabbits, the nation’s third most popular furry pet behind cats and dogs.

Whole Foods denies allegations against the farmers who raise their rabbits.

“We were pleased to have worked with a small group of farmers to create a rabbit growing system that met our quality standards, unlike any other in the industry,” the company’s statement said.

In the past, Whole Foods has also defended the sales of rabbit meat as an environmentally-friendly lean-meat alternative. In defending its pilot program last year, the company referenced an article in the Los Angeles Times about a rabbit meat “renaissance.” Here’s a notable paragraph from the article:

“At a time when buzzwords like ‘organic,’ ‘local” and “sustainable’ are driving the market, rabbit is ripe for resurgence. According to Slow Food USA, rabbit can produce 6 pounds of meat using the same amount of food and water it takes for a cow to produce only 1 pound. Not to mention the health benefits. Rabbit is a lean meat that is higher in protein but lower in calories, fat and cholesterol than many other meats, including chicken, beef and pork.”