Sunday, July 18, 2010


In my last post, I mentioned stumbling upon a certification program for farms that seemed to have stricter animal welfare standards than most I had seen: Animal Welfare Approved. I decided to check it out. What I found made me want to jump for joy. Seriously.

Animal Welfare Approved is a program run by the non-profit Animal Welfare Institute through which they evaluate and certify family farms. I’ve read a lot of fact sheets on the standards for different certification programs (such as Certified Humane, which I discussed last time), but this one seems fundamentally different. Reading through the AWA program guidelines, I felt like some very smart people sat down and figured out how to describe the ideal happy farm that I have in my head, one in which the cows roam grassy hills munching as they go, the pigs play happily in the mud, and the chickens run around pecking at seeds in front of the farm house. It sounds a bit cheesy, I know, but that is the farm from which I want to buy my food. Most other programs seem to start with the conventional status quo and then add or extend restrictions to improve the welfare of the animals or the environmental impact or the working conditions of the farm staff. All of those programs and certifications thus improve upon conventional agriculture, and perhaps do identify farms that would fit into my ideal, but I can also envision farms that are only a little better than conventional, with the same mentality of profit over animal welfare, that could technically meet the requirements. With AWA, I have a hard time coming up with a farm that could simultaneously meet all of their requirements and not measure up to my fantasy farm. Here are a few things that really jumped out at me while going through their website:

Truly happy farms. You would have to go read through their standards to know all of what AWA requires, but the end result appears to be the idealized family farm you would want to take your kids to visit. No CAFOs or battery cages or tail docking. No overcrowding or use of antibiotics solely to alleviate the distress of an unnatural environment. No forced molting. Basically, AWA farms are at the other end of the ethical spectrum from conventional animal operations.

Birth-to-slaughter evaluation and no dual production! One of the things that annoys me most about a lot of conventional meats is that they are often labeled specifically to mislead consumers. Beef labels that say “pasture-raised” or even “grass-fed”, as opposed to “100% grass-fed”, can be referring to the time the cow spent on a ranch from just after its birth until it was sent to the CAFO where it was force-fed corn and pumped full of antibiotics and laid around in its own manure because it had no where else to roam! These labels describe only a small part of the animal’s life and intentionally leave out the worst parts. However, along with several other certification programs, AWA evaluates the entire life of the animal from birth to slaughter. Also, AWA does not allow dual production, in which some animals on the farm are raised to meet one set of standards (organic, humane, AWA, etc.) while elsewhere on the same farm the animals are raised conventionally. Back in January, I mentioned that duBrenton, a company that sells mostly-ethical pork to Chipotle, appears to be a dual-production company that raises pigs using different methods so their pork can be sold under a variety of labels. What bothers me about dual production operations is that they are obviously okay with the conventional animal handling standards, which I refer to as torture. Their participation in ethical programs is just a way of tapping into an additional market. I have a hard time trusting a company that isn’t bothered by the way we conventionally treat animals to provide me with ethical meat. The fact that AWA considers the animal’s welfare through its entire life cycle and disallows dual production farms assures me that I am supporting only those farms that completely comply with my standards for ethical animal products.

Consideration of factors beyond animal welfare. Restricting farm operations to the point that a farm simply cannot profit is obviously counter-productive, so profitability was considered in the development of the AWA standards. The environmental impact of raising farm animals using different methods has also been taken into account such that AWA-approved farms are environmentally sustainable. For me, ethical eating is not just about the welfare of animals, but also the welfare of the environment and the people affected by conventional agriculture, so this combined approach is just what I’ve been looking for. Finally, although the AWA standards were created to ensure the highest level of welfare for farm animals, it is possible that for a specific farm there are actually different methods that are better for the animals. I was impressed by the statements on the AWA website that farmers are encouraged to discuss such issues with the AWA and that approval can still be granted for these farms.

It’s free (for farms, that is). Although it is likely an involved process, farms don’t pay to be evaluated or to maintain their certifications, which hopefully means more farms can participate in the program.

If you find the AWA certification program as compelling as I do, you will now want to know where to find AWA products. Their website has a search tool under the Consumers tab that allows you to find farms and products that are Animal Welfare Approved. Some AWA meat and dairy can actually be found at Whole Foods! The only tricky thing is that many of the products themselves are not labeled so you have to know which brands to look for – information you can easily find using the search tool. I was a little disappointed that neither Marin Sun Farms nor Llano Seco came up as AWA. That doesn’t mean they wouldn’t qualify, of course, but I’d be interested to know why they aren’t AWA. Once again, I see, I will need to be put myself out there and ask questions! In the meantime, I am very pleased to have found a program that seems to encapsulate all of things I am looking for. I hope more farms will choose to participate so we can all enjoy eating ethically!