“Free range.” “No hormones or steroids.” “All-natural.”
“Certified Angus beef.” “Fresh poultry.” “Pesticide-free.”
These are a few of the phrases that appear on products at the local grocery store or farmer’s market. Although farmers and producers may use these phrases in confidence, it should be noted that food labels don’t always carry a legal definition. Without regulatory supervision or established standards, these phrases can amount to nothing more than clever advertising.
Americans are as inquisitive as ever about where their food comes from, and programs like Animal Welfare Approved and Humane Farm Animal Care are providing a degree of transparency. These certification programs were developed with animal welfare and the environment in mind. Nurseries, farms and slaughterhouses must meet strict guidelines and submit to third-party inspections in order for a product to be deemed “Animal Welfare Approved” or “Certified Humane Raised and Handled.”
There are 15 farms in Missouri that are AWA-approved, while Humane Farm Animal Care has only one certified farm in the state, the Circle B Ranch in Seymour, Missouri. Products approved by the two programs can be found in grocery stores throughout the state and across the nation. Altogether, more than 400 farms in North America have products that are Animal Welfare Approved, and over 4500* farms in North America are approved by Humane Farm Animal Care.
Both Animal Welfare Approved and Humane Farm Animal Care have established standards for a variety of domesticated animals from large bovines like cows and bison to farm fowl like chickens and geese.
Seal of Approval
The “Animal Welfare Approved” and “Certified Humane Raised and Handled” labels are two examples of many animal welfare programs and certifications based in North America. The labels are similar on many standards, but differ on specific guidelines such as whether livestock must be raised indoors or outdoors and transportation times between the farms and the slaughterhouses.
Animal Welfare Approved was founded in 2006 as a project program for the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) based in Washington D.C. “The AWA program set out to make a transparent and highly meaningful food label that would bring something new to the marketplace not currently being met by certifications at that time,” Emily Moose, the director of communications and outreach for the program, wrote in an e-mail.
The AWA’s protocol for farms and slaughterhouses was developed with the input of scientists, veterinarians, researchers and farmers from around the world. These standards are updated each year based on new research and farm input.
In order to thoroughly ensure products, farms and producers are up to standard, the AWA program requires annual audits to ensure compliance. AWA auditors must either have a degree in agricultural science or have five years’ experience as a farm animal veterinarian or farmer. Auditors are then trained on-site and in classroom sessions on the AWA’s standards.
A product is considered “Animal Welfare Approved” when it can pass farm, slaughterhouse and traceability audits, guaranteeing the product meets standards from the farm to the checkout counter, and everywhere in-between. “In a world where labels are increasingly confusing and misleading, we lead the industry in identifying, auditing and supporting farmers who are raising their animals to the highest welfare standards,” Moose wrote. Not only does Animal Welfare Approved support AWA-sponsored farmers, but approved farms showcase the “Animal Welfare Approved” stickers on their products proudly.
Green Dirt Farm in Weston, Missouri, is one of a handful of Missouri farms certified through AWA. Founder and “Big Cheese” Sarah Hoffmann lived on several small farms across the U.S. when her father was in the Navy. When she tried to find a viable business opportunity of her own, she found her niche with one of the animals she grew up with: sheep.
Green Dirt Farm was founded in 2002 where the intention from the beginning was to create a bustling sheep dairy and cheese-making operation. Over the last 14 years, the farm has grown to expanded to include cows, rabbits and ducks. It has always emphasized the process of raising food “From Dirt to Table.”
Green Dirt Farm has been approved under the program’s standards every year since 2008. These standards include each ewe being inspected at least twice every day and having continuous outdoor pasture access where it can find a variety of roughage to graze on.
“Our foremost and our first task and responsibility is to protect our soil and to make sure it is a living, breathing, healthy ecosystem,” Hoffmann says. Being mindful of soil erosion and the soil’s microbial community helps keep the farm’s grasses that ewes graze on in their prime growth and nutritional value. The farm has 70 acres of pastures for grazing with an array of tall grass species like broom, timothy, fescue and orchard grasses. The farm uses this diverse diet to prepare for adverse weather conditions or droughts that may limit the amount of grasses available for grazing. Grains, oats and non-GMO corn make up the rest of the ewes’ diets.
There are only two geese farms in the United States that are AWA approved, one of which is only an hour and a half from Columbia.
Gosherd Valley Cottage is right outside of Morrison, Missouri, close to where the Gasconade River flows into the larger Missouri River. Connie Cunningham, who co-owns the farm with her sister, lives on the land while she takes care of the farm’s day-to-day operations along with her farmhands.
Cunningham opted for geese and chickens as the primary livestock for the farm for their marketability and their manageable size. She discovered Animal Welfare Approved through the programs efforts of conserving the wildlife balance between farm animals and natural predators in the nearby areas.
Every season, the farm has a new headcount of around 200 geese. Cunningham likes having an open pasture for the geese to graze. “They’re less stressed, they’re less likely to get sick, and if they do get sick, we can treat them pretty proactively because we’re on top of the animals, we’re with them everyday,” she says. The geese are able to squawk and squabble and fly about on her farm as opposed to a larger factory farm where they might be lost among feathers. “It’s important to have happy animals,” Cunningham says. “It’s also a healthier way to raise them.”
Having happy and healthy animals is an important goal for not only farmers but animal welfare groups as well. Believing in the highest degree of animal welfare for farm animals was a huge factor for Adele Douglass, the founder of Humane Farm Animal Care, based in the Washington D.C. area. Douglass is the executive director of the group, which she created in 2003 after many years as a congressional staff member who served on several agriculture committees like the Food Marketing Institute and United Egg Producers Committee. She expected the farms they visited to be like Old MacDonald’s farm, but she was sickened and upset by the way the farm animals were actually raised. Shrieking hens stuck in small cages and cattle herded in giant feedlots with no shelter from the sun and wind were a few of the atrocities she saw.
She knew she wanted to make a difference but thought congressional legislation would be too slow. She decided to take matters into her own hands and started the organization that created the “Certified Humane Raised and Handled” label. According to Douglass, around 143,000 animals were raised under the organization’s banner in 2003. Last year, that number rose to over 103 million animals across North and South America.
Much like Animal Welfare Approved, the standards used by Humane Farm Animal Care were developed with the input of veterinarians along with animal and agricultural scientists from a wide array of fields across the world. “The standards are written to meet the physiological and behavioral needs of the animals…not our perceived needs of the animal, but the actual needs of the animals,” Douglass says.
For example, some may think of undercover videos where chickens are crammed into tight enclosures with barely any room to spread their wings and assume that chickens need to be raised outside in order to live freely. However, the organization found no research to conclude that chickens need to be raised outdoors. Douglass says chickens dislike direct sunlight along with cold or windy weather conditions outdoors, albeit not as much as extremely cramped enclosures. The program’s goal is to use the most natural and humane methods that animal science dictates. That means chickens must live in an area where they can move around in freely, have a “dark period” of at least six hours so the chickens can sleep, as well as have proper veterinarian care, just to name a few standards.
Programs like Humane Farm Animal Care and Animal Welfare Approved not only try to ensure the happiest life for farm animals, but try to break through the onslaught of unsubstantiated advertising at the supermarket or farmer’s market.
“We know that healthy, content animals produce better tasting, healthier meat, milk and eggs,” Moose wrote in an e-mail. “The AWA program operates on the understanding that the way we raise our animals, the nutritional quality of the meat, milk and eggs they produce, and the impact of farming systems on the environment, are all intrinsically linked.”
*CORRECTION: This article previously stated an incorrect number of farms certified through Humane Farm Animal Care. It is more than 4500 farms.