When food has values

The Certified Humane label tells loads about meat and dairy products

Amy Radbill is a freelance writer and editor of the Davis Food Co-op newsletter, Natural Choices

Sacramento’s trash

For conscientious consumers who care about what they eat and where it came from, eating animal products can be something of a dilemma. While place-of-origin labels and the certified-organic stamp make it easier to purchase genuinely organic, minimally processed produce, voting for your food values with your wallet is often less easy when it comes to meat and dairy products.

For instance, just because an egg carton claims the eggs are from “free range” hens, that doesn’t necessarily mean those hens are being fed the best food—or even that they’re ranging very far or for very long. And while the labels “natural” or “organic” on meat products may tell you that cattle haven’t been filled with antibiotics and growth hormones, they don’t necessarily ensure animals were particularly well treated during their lives, or that they were slaughtered as humanely as possible.

Enter the Certified Humane Raised and Handled label. Administered by Humane Farm Animal Care, a nonprofit organization based in Herndon, Va., the Certified Humane labeling program is the brainchild of Adele Douglass, a former director of the Washington, D.C., branch of the American Humane Association.

HFAC’s mission is “to improve the welfare of farm animals by providing viable, credible, duly monitored standards for humane food production” and it issues a stamp of approval that assures the public that it is purchasing products that meet those very rigorous standards. HFAC requires producers, among other things, to “[allow] animals to engage in their natural behaviors; [raise] animals with sufficient space, shelter and gentle handling to limit stress; [make] sure they have ample fresh water and a healthy diet without added antibiotics or hormones.”

The Certified Humane label appears on meats, eggs, milk and other dairy products. Producers adhere to standards set by HFAC’s scientific committee, made up of leaders in the fields of animal science and veterinary medicine, among others. (Perhaps the most widely known name on the committee is that of Temple Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University and a leader in the field of food-animal welfare.)

In order to earn and retain the right to label their goods Certified Humane, producers must have their facilities, records and handling methods meticulously inspected once a year by HFAC’s independently contracted inspectors. Every animal is tracked throughout its life to ensure that every stage of its treatment—up to and including slaughter—complies with HFAC’s standards.

According to Holly Bridges, co-founder of the organization and its former outreach director, HFAC, “was founded to improve the lives of farm animals [by having] an internationally renowned scientific community say, as a committee, ‘ These are the standards—if you can’t meet them, your production is not humane.’”

Furthermore, the ultimate goal is to use the power of the marketplace to set the bar higher for the treatment of all food animals. Bridges points out that it can take a very long time to create change by lobbying for new government policies. On the other hand, by working with farmers and ranchers to develop a consumer market for high quality humane goods and by creating a certification process with real muscle, HFAC has created a sound business reason for producers to comply with its high standards. Producers recognize that consumers care how food is produced—whether it’s out of concern for animal welfare, food safety and nutritional content, protection of the environment or the future of smaller farms and local foods.

Bridges says, “Producers have to feel that there’s a strong market for their responsibly raised product, because it’s highly labor intensive to track [food animals] from birth through slaughter.” And, clearly, they do. In 2003, Certified Humane had only five producers on their list. Today their Web site lists over 60.

Of course, as Bridges points out, many of the producers on that list were managing their animals according to humane standards well before they applied for and received the right to carry the Certified Humane label. Prather Ranch, located right here in Northern California, is one good example. Many of these producers have decided to participate in the program because they believe strongly in its values and they want to see it grow, says Bridges.

If you’re ready to make the switch to humane animal products, the Certified Humane label is quite easy to find here in the Sacramento region—for a list of stores that carry them, check out the HFAC Web site at www.certifiedhumane.com. If you want to know more about the labeling program, you can check out HFAC’s policy manual by clicking on the “Program Description” link. If you want to get involved further, you can lobby your local retailers and restaurants to carry products with the Certified Humane label—HFAC makes it easy for you by providing letters in a Word format for you to download, edit and send out with your signature.