The Baltimore Sun : Showing Care Down on the Farm

Tina Boyd is the first to admit that she is an animal lover.

The Davidsonville psychotherapist is also the first to admit that animals can be quite tasty, too.

In the continuing struggle between your socially conscience brain and your gourmet palate, there’s now a way to please both.

The nonprofit Humane Farm Animal Care group was started just more than a year ago by a consortium of animal-welfare organizations to inspect, certify and label meat, eggs, dairy and poultry products from animals that were properly cared for from birth to slaughter.

That means Boyd can throw lamb chops on the grill in the summer or ground lamb into her spaghetti in the winter and not feel bad about it.

“The people I know, my friends and acquaintances, are very socially aware of shopping for foods that are not genetically engineered, have no additives, aren’t artificially flavored or pumped full of antibiotics and hormones,” Boyd said.

“There is a demand for it. People have more awareness of how animals are treated. I think more farmers will operate this way if they know that the market would bear it. It would be financially lucrative for them.”

The squeeze of efficiency and profits over the years has forced many food producers across the country to adopt “factory-farming” techniques, HFAC officials said, in which livestock are crammed into confined quarters and shot full of hormones to fatten them up more quickly for market.

But growing fears of mad-cow disease and other food-borne illnesses have helped so-called eco-friendly products gain ground among health-conscious consumers. Labels touting free-range, all-natural and phosphate-free products often demand a premium price at gourmet supermarkets.

But with little oversight or regulation of such labels, many consumers have no idea what they’re really getting, said Adele Douglass, executive director of HFAC, which is affiliated with two of the nation’s leading animal-welfare organizations — the Humane Society of the United States and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Although sponsors of HFAC support animal welfare, they’re not opposed to the use of animals for food as long as they’re treated humanely throughout the process.

With the “certified humane” label, Douglass said, comes strict standards developed by the program’s team of animal scientists and veterinarians. HFAC farms do not use antibiotics or hormones, cages that prevent natural movement, small gestation stalls that house pregnant sows, or forced molting. Annual inspections ensure producers comply with those standards.

“More and more farmers — even big producers — are looking for an edge,” said Kirsty Laughlin, HFAC’s director of animal-science programs. “As more and more groups document abuses taking place at farms, more and more people will become more aware of the problems and demand change. What we’re saying is that just because we eat the animals doesn’t mean we shouldn’t treat them right.

“We’re hoping the more people who join the program, the more standardized these humane practices will be throughout the industry,” Laughlin said. “It’s going back to the way farming used to be.”

The concept has been somewhat slow to attract participants, but HFAC hopes that it will catch on. In its first year, HFAC had five farmers join. In its second year, 10 more producers and a Virginia restaurant have joined so far. Producers who want to join must fill out a 20-page application, pay a fee for inspection and certification and open up their farm and records to HFAC inspectors.

Count Ned Sayre among those first five who were quick to see the market’s potential.

Sayre already followed many of the strict standards set by HFAC on his Waffle Hill cattle farm in Churchville in Harford County. Sayre’s 300 head of Angus, which sell under the name Deer Creek Beef, have plenty of trees for shade and 400 acres for grazing. The animals don’t roam free but are moved every few days from section to section of roped-off pasture to allow the fields time to grow back.

Sayre keeps meticulous records of each animal’s health and medical history. He documents their eating schedules to show they are fed grass, mineral mix and whole-shell corn to prove that his herd is free of hormones and antibiotics.

“The welfare of our animals is our livelihood,” Sayre said. “To keep them healthy and happy is in our best interest.”

Right up until the point of slaughter, animals in the HFAC program suffer as little stress as possible because studies have shown that stress can cause them to tighten up their muscles and release endorphins, which can cause meat to be tougher. Non-skid flooring, proper lighting and a quiet environment help keep animals calm before they are stunned and then slaughtered.

Says Alan Zuschlag, owner of HFAC-certified Touchstone Farm in Amissville, Va., “It doesn’t mean I pick up each animal every day, pet them and give them each a name, because I don’t. But they have a very good life and are handled very humanely before they go to market.”

Zuschlag’s 150 sheep graze pastures on 71 acres of Virginia Piedmont grass and are checked daily by the former economist for any health problems.

Twice a year, Zuschlag sells out of 100 lambs and he has a waiting list of loyal customers.

“It was a no-brainer,” said Zuschlag, who gave up his Washington day job to run his own farm, which direct-markets and hand-delivers products to customers. “This certification is just icing on the cake. I can talk until I’m blue in the face about how my lambs are raised natural, but if there are no standards that people can look at, then it doesn’t really mean anything.

“With this label, it assures customers that someone else coming in, independent of me, is saying that these animals were raised right. It’s a useful marketing tool to differentiate my product from others.”

Consumers looking to purchase “certified humane” products might find themselves paying slightly more than at local supermarkets but are typically on par or lower compared to premium or gourmet products.

Boyd said the price she pays for Touchstone lamb is about the same as lamb sold in upscale supermarkets — a bargain, she says, for meat that is sweeter, leaner and more tender.

“And it’s delivered to my door. What more could you ask for at that price?” Boyd said.

HFAC hopes that Boyd’s attitude will catch on among more consumers. The nonprofit group is talking to a D.C. restaurant and a handful of other producers to join the program. HFAC officials also encourage larger producers around the country to join, too.

“People really do want to eat their food with a good conscience,” said Douglass, the executive director of HFAC. “Right now, it’s a niche market, but I hope five years from now it’ll be more mainstream. We want to make huge changes in the food industry through consumer demand.”