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Truth in labeling: animal welfare certifications December 4, 2009

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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Those of us who don’t personally know the farmers and processors who produce the animals we eat find it difficult to ascertain just how those animals were treated during their lives and deaths. Never fear, though, there’s plenty of marketing right there on the packages to make us feel better about eating them anyway. Some labels sport pictures of spotted cows whimsically scampering over pastures (useless). Some use catchphrases alluding to how the animal lived, e.g., cage-free or pasture-raised (semi-useful – more on this in a later post). And some feature third-party certifications from independent organizations focused on animal welfare. Their independent status and the fact that companies that participate in their programs must submit to inspections make third-party certifications the most trustworthy indicator of animal welfare for the consumer who seeks ethically produced meat. But how do the different certification programs compare?

Here’s my ranking of a few of the most widely used certifications out there, ordered from most to least strict protector of animal welfare. For each, I include an example of their requirements for beef cattle and poultry housing. Housing governs how much space the animals get and what activities they are able to engage in – both key determinants to quality of life for animals.

Animal Welfare Approved. This organization upholds the strictest welfare guidelines I could find.

  1. Beef cattle: cattle must always have access to pasture, except under extreme weather conditions. A less serious organization would leave that exception vague and open to (mis)interpretation by the farmer, but AWA specifies that a particular weather condition, e.g., ice storms, temperatures below a given threshold, must be cited to keep cattle indoors. The farmer can’t just move them in from November 1st to Feb 28th and be done with it.
  2. Meat chickens: pasturing is not required, but birds older than four weeks must have multiple access routes to the outdoors and the housing structure must encourage birds to go outside during daylight. These requirements prevent the farmer from just opening a narrow door for a week or two that chickens never actually use, and claiming that the birds have access to the outdoors.

Food Alliance. This group’s certification scheme covers not just animal welfare, but environmental stewardship and social responsibility, a plus for consumers who care about all these things and like the simplicity of having just one logo to look for on the label. The certification process is more complex than one like Animal Welfare Approved’s. Food Alliance has only a few all-or-nothing standards that producers must meet. For most standards, Food Alliance gives producers a score from 1-4, then awards certification if the average score in each area is at least a 3. Their “areas” are rather broad; an example of one is “healthy and humane care of livestock,” and it includes nutrition, health, living conditions, handling, etc. In practice, a producer could score very low on living conditions but still be certified if they score very high in several other areas. This approach has pros and cons: the obvious con is that you won’t be sure, by purchasing Food Alliance certified foods, that any particular standard, e.g., for pasturing livestock, will be met. On the other hand, the flexibility of this approach allows farmers who are trying to improve their operations but aren’t yet perfect to gain access to conscientious consumers and get the financial support to continue to improve.

  1. Beef cattle: to achieve a level 3, cattle must range on pasture for part of the year. No specific length of time is specified.
  2. Meat chickens: to achieve a level 3, birds must either be housed in a building that provides natural daylight and fresh air or they must be given access to the outdoors for at least eight hours a day, weather permitting. The number and location of exits to the outdoors must be enough to allow all birds to go out and the setup must encourage birds to go out.

Certified Humane. The ASPCA and Humane Society support this program, which was the first of its kind. This certification is much weaker than Animal Welfare Approved or Food Alliance and doesn’t do much more than ensure the animals aren’t in absolute hell. [July 2011 – see amendment below!]

  1. Beef cattle: cattle are allowed to be kept in indoor or outdoor feedlots for finishing, without access to pasture. Requirements that promote welfare include having a dry place to lie down; non-slip floors; and access to water or shade during hot weather in outdoor feedlots.
  2. Meat chickens: chickens can be housed indoors at all times without access to natural daylight. Provisions to protect animal welfare include a ban on cages, wires, and slatted floors and a requirement to have at least 8 hours of light and 6 hours of darkness per day.

United Egg Producers Certified, Beef Quality Assurance Certified, Pork Quality Assurance Plus Certified, etc. These are all certifications granted by industry associations, not independent third parties. The purpose of an industry association is to grow sales and profits for that industry. There’s nothing wrong with that – that’s their job – but the mission of an industry association is not to care for animal welfare. These certifications are no more than packaging decoration.

NOTE: As of July 2011, I’d like to amend my judgment of Certified Humane’s certification. It’s actually a first-rate program and stricter than Food Alliance. I have been doing much more detailed research on certifications for my upcoming book and have found Certified Humane to be a trustworthy partner in the search for ethically produced meat and dairy. More to come!

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Comments»

1. December 7 Morning Roundup « The Heavy Table - December 7, 2009

[…] Pizzeria that he isn’t very fond of, the City Pages Hot Dish month in review, a thoughtful look at animal welfare certifications by From Animal to Meat, an op-ed inspired by Wisconsin cheesemakers makes the Atlantic’s […]

2. notafactoryfarmer - August 7, 2010

If we treated our pets the way factory farmed animals are treated you would be breaking the law. In other words one law for pets. Another for farm animals.

You might be interested in my book ON THE MENU:ANIMAL WELFARE (website ame name!) – which tells, for the most part, a horror story, NOT imagined, but something that is happening every moment of every day. It draws attention to the animals on factory farms that never see natural light; or the seasons change; or feel the earth beneath their feet. Incarcerated in vast barns their lives are automated, unnatural, controlled as they are treated as nothing more than any other farm product and become grotesque parodies of their natural selves.

This book describes the whole production process – from before conception to the way the animals we use for food are presented on the supermarket shelves: the chickens, ducks, turkeys and geese; the laying hens, quail and the pheasants reared for sport; the pigs and lambs; the dairy cattle, beef cattle and veal calves; and also the rabbits as well as the fish and shellfish.

Published by Pen Press and available from Amazon at £8.99; from public libraries in the UK and Ireland; and also Ingrams (in the USA).

Angelique - August 7, 2010

Thanks for the reference to your book; sounds like a very relevant read.


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