By John Clarke
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has joined a nationwide protest to stop Whole Foods stores from selling rabbit meat, the animal rights group said Thursday.
A group calling itself House Rabbit Society staged demonstrations at 44 Whole Foods Markets Inc stores across the nation on Sunday, accusing the food store chain of being "bunny butchers" and demanding that the high-end supermarket chain stop offering the product.
"A lot of people we talked to were surprised and horrified that Whole Foods was even selling rabbits," said Anne Martin, executive director of House Rabbit Society.
The society describes itself as a rabbit rescue and educational organizational with 31 chapters in the United States and 4,000 paying members.
Sprouts Farmers Market, another health food-oriented chain store similar to Whole Foods, briefly carried rabbit in its 150 stores, but stopped after House Rabbit Society protested, Martin said.
Whole Foods, which offers about half of its 373 U.S. stores the option of selling rabbit, said it recently set new standards for rabbit farming. It said has no plans to stop selling the meat.
In addition to the protests, an online petition drive to stop Whole Foods from selling rabbit has gathered more than 16,000 signatures, according to the group's page on change.org.
PETA President Ingrid Newkirk said Whole Foods should discontinue sales of rabbit meat because the slaughter methods are inhumane.
"We object to slaughtering any animals for a snack or a meal, and we are painfully aware that rabbits, like chickens, become extremely frightened when handled for slaughter and that neck-wringing and neck-slitting lead to slow deaths," Newkirk said.
To minimize animal suffering and improve overall living conditions, the company said it had set new animal welfare standards for rabbits.
Those include allowing rabbits to socialize and play, providing consistent access to food and water, and medical treatment, and allowing a longer period of time for female rabbits to recover after giving birth.
"We understand this product won’t appeal to everyone," the company said in a statement. "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."
(Editing by Frank McGurty and Eric Walsh)