USA Today : Certified Humane the “Gold Standard” in Improving the Lives of Farm Animals

By Elizabeth Weise

USA Today

The United States is dramatically improving the quality of the lives — and the humaneness of the deaths — of the cows, pigs and chickens Americans eat.

Experts say the increased concern for animal welfare over the past five years is nothing short of remarkable. But what makes it even more remarkable is that it’s coming from the folks with the economic clout to make producers sit up and take notice: supermarkets and fast-food restaurants. And they are continuing a reform trend started by the world’s most famous purveyor of beef: McDonald’s.

The period from 1999 to 2002 was a “watershed” in animal welfare worldwide, says David Fraser, a professor of animal behavior and welfare at the University of British Columbia in Canada. “It was as if a crucial mass had been reached and animal welfare programs became a thing to do.”

“If you’re Mr. Chicken Grower you had better pay attention, because your biggest customers are going to be asking you what you’re doing to ensure your chickens are being handled humanely”, says Terrie Dort of the National Council of Chain Restaurants.

Among the reforms in place:

> More than half of beef cattle in North America meet their end at slaughterhouses based on innovative designs that consider the fears and inclinations of these herd animals. No more cattle prods.

> The cages of laying hens are almost a third larger than the old ones. The sometimes weeks-long starvation that stimulates egg production is beginning to be phased out.

> Last November, voters in Florida passed a measure outlawing sow stalls, where pregnant pigs are confined in stalls 2 feet wide and 7 feet long, unable to turn around or walk for much of the 115-day pregnancy. Nationally, supermarket and fast-food chains are saying they might not buy from producers who do not stop this.

This is an enormous change, Dort says. “When you put together my companies and the grocery chains that are represented by (the Food Marketing Institute), I don’t know that there’s anybody left,” says Dort. “If you’re not selling to one of these big companies, who the hell are you selling to?”

American animal agriculture took a turn toward the horrific after World War II when the production of cheap food became public policy. Industrial methods were applied to the raising of the chickens, pigs and cows who provide our food. Competition drove prices down. In 1930, American families spent $24 of every $100 on food. In 2001 that number was only $10,  the U.S. Department of Agriculture says.

But those efficiencies came at the cost of enormous suffering for the animals. Perhaps the most important of the reforms is that objective, measurable standards are being put in place in the slaughterhouse to ensure that cattle, swine and chickens meet their ends in a much more painless and calm manner than in the past.

Depending on the animal, 95 to 99 out of 100 must be stunned on the first try at slaughter, and all must be unconscious when killed.

The retail initiative

In a groundbreaking program started with little fanfare in 2001, the FMI and the NCCR launched an animal-welfare initiative. The organizations asked respected animal-welfare academics to review the animal-handling standards of industry groups, including the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the American Meat Institute, the Milk & Dairy Beef Quality Assurance Center, the National Milk Producers Federation, the National Chicken Council, the National Pork Board, the National Turkey Federation and the United Egg Producers.

After months — and sometimes years — of back and forth, they crafted guidelines for the slaughter of cattle, swine, sheep and goats as well as for egg, milk and chicken production. Swine and beef handling are under review.

For the most park, the FMI-NCCR guidelines are based upon industry guidelines that have already undergone several years of reform. But in some cases the academics were stricter. For example, the FMI-NCCR guidelines don’t allow tail cutting in dairy cattle; they require the phasing out of sow stalls; and they require the broiler chickens have more room than required by the National Chicken Council.

Audits will start taking place of egg, milk and chicken producers this summer. Pork producers will be audited shortly thereafter. The inspection of cattle and feed lots will come when discussions with the National Cattleman’s Beef Association are finalized.

Some criticize the Animal Welfare Audit Program because it’s voluntary and purchasers can ignore the results if they wish. But proponents say it’s likely that larger chains will require that all their suppliers follow the guidelines.

And it’s remarkable that for the first time, “food retailers who are at one end of the chain are actually talking to the people whose animals produce the product,” says Janice Swanson, a professor of animal sciences and industry and Kansas State University.

But FMI-NCCR wasn’t the first to carry the animal-welfare banner.

The Mac Attack

In 1997, McDonald’s began a process that resulted in a requirement that all its meat producers undergo animal-welfare audits using a system created by the renowned animal behaviorist Temple Grandin. Grandin is a professor of animal science at Colorado State University who has done ground-breaking work on the behavioral principles of livestock handling to alleviate animals’ suffering at the slaughterhouse.

That same year, the United Egg Producers created an all-star academic panel that went on to create the first animal-welfare guidelines by an industry group.

Pressure from animal-rights groups provided some momentum. There were highly publicized campaigns against the food industry, causing concern among producers that consumers, especially the important child and teen market, might stop eating meat.

Grandin met McDonald’s through the late Henry Spira of Animal Rights International, a moderate who advocated working with producers.

Working with Grandin, McDonald’s launched welfare standards that required suppliers to follow strict guidelines measurable by simple counts of such things as how many cows are mooing or how many pigs at a slaughterhouse were stunned on the first try. These animal-welfare audits for the first time allowed a precise measure of animal treatment.

In 1999 McDonald’s conducted 100 audits in the USA. In 2002 it did 500 worldwide. Because the company is such a large purchaser, it pushed the entire industry to change because no one could afford not to sell to McDonald’s.

The consumers’ role

Experts say better conditions for animals are up to consumers. “The consuming public has to understand that what you are willing to pay in a grocery store does have impact on the lives of these animals,” Kansas State’s Swanson says.

This spring the Certified Humane program created a gold standard for animal welfare. The program audits producers according to one of the strictest animal-welfare criteria in the USA. Called Humane Farm Animal Care, it’s a certification program that covers beef and dairy cattle, pigs, and laying and broiler chickens.

“I really believe the only way to change the way animals are treated is through the marketplace,” founder Adele Douglass says.

The Certified Humane labels will start to appear in supermarkets around the country this fall. Douglass concedes it’s more expensive but believes many consumers are willing to spend “a little bit more for food if it means the animals have been raised right.”