Saturday, January 8, 2011

Truth Behind the Labels: How Meat Eaters Can Find Out if Their Dinner Was Really Humanely Raised | Food | AlterNet

EcoSalon / By Vanessa Barrington
So what does humane treatment of animals actually look like? Who defines it? And most important, if you're a meat eater, what is your personal line?
This story first appeared on EcoSalon.

A few years ago, on a tour of a small village in Vietnam, we were taken to a small farm compound, where the residents manufactured rice paper wrappers for spring rolls and raised a few farm animals for food. There were chickens clucking around and a few friendly, waddling ducks. There was also an enormous pig housed in a small, concrete enclosure.
As our group approached, the pig rose up on her hind legs, placed her front legs on the ledge of her pen, and looked us all straight in the eyes with a completely charming mixture of intelligence and humor. Without a doubt, that pig was posing. The pen was small, but clean. The pig appeared to have plenty of freedom of movement. The pig was whole, no cropped tail, no sores, nothing amiss. I can’t pretend to know if that pig was a happy pig. But from my limited human perspective, she looked contented.

Every time I think about how we raise animals for food, I think about that expressive pig. That pig represents both my deep ambivalence about eating animals and also what I think of as the ideal way to raise animals for food.

For those of us who do eat meat, who don’t raise our own animals, one at a time, or who cannot afford to pay top dollar to buy direct from a very small farm, that ideal is pretty near unattainable.

For conscious omnivores, who eat meat sparingly and thoughtfully, who avoid meat raised under conditions that we call “factory farming,” what is a reasonable level of animal welfare in farming? And how accurate are our perceptions of what constitutes “good farming”? Farming is a struggle for farmers. There is a delicate balance between the scale and methods that will allow the farmer to stay in business and earn a living, and letting the animals experience life as naturally as possible.

So what does humane treatment of animals actually look like? Who defines it? And most important, if you’re a meat eater, what is your personal line?

The Humane Society of the United States has been actively documenting the worst abuses of factory farming in a series of undercover investigations. In December, a video showing atrocities at a Smithfield pig breeding facility in Virginia was released. The pigs were kept in gestation crates barely large enough for their bodies for their entire lives, live pigs were thrown in dumpsters, and baby piglets were left to die in manure pits after falling through the slats of the crates that their mothers spent their entire lives in.

Just in time for Thanksgiving, a video documenting the routine mutilation of turkey poults at the nation’s largest turkey hatching facility was released. Fifty percent of the turkeys available in typical grocery stores came from that particular hatchery.

How can you be sure that you are not contributing to such practices? Find out what humane treatment is, study the certifications, and then buy meat that you can feel good about.
At a glance, here are the various certifications, their affiliations, and their logos:

Animal Welfare Approved: Animal Welfare Institute (non-profit)

Humane Farm Animal Care: Humane Society of the United States (non-profit)

Global Animal Partnership: Non-profit, but partially funded by and affiliated with Whole Foods

USDA Organic: Govt agency (the National Organic Program includes animal welfare standards into its rules)

American Humane Certified: The American Humane Association (not-for-profit corporation)
All these standards are summarized here. Download the pdf chart to see a chart of side-by-side comparisons.

It’s a complex issue so here’s my take on it:

Best of the Best:
If you have plenty of money and access to small farms, go for the strictest certification, which in most cases is Animal Welfare Approved. This certification seems to cover mostly very small family farms. Some of the small family farms from which you buy might more than meet the requirements, but they also might know their customers well enough that they don’t become certified. The lesson here is to know your farmer and visit the farm, if you can. In which case, the certification doesn’t even matter.

Next Best:
Humane Farm Animal Care does a great job of writing standards for operations of different sizes and scales. Some of the commonly available mid-sized regional producers are able to meet these standards, so if you buy your food in a grocery store, not direct from farmers, this is the best certification to look for.

The Rest:
Global Animal Partnership has some good standards on important issues, but doesn’t address a lot of issues that need addressing. If Whole Foods is your store, you can see where they are headed with their certification system that rates producers according to a series of steps.
USDA Organic is better than nothing but doesn’t impose many restrictions on how the animals are treated other than those relating to feed, antibiotics, and hormones.
American Humane Certified is the weakest because it isn’t transparent and doesn’t address many issues. Plus, it allows a lot of common practices none of the others do.
In the end, you have to decide what your personal limits are – both budgetary and ethically.

Summary of Major Requirements Per Species by Certification
Growth Hormones – prohibited by all except not addressed by American Humane Certified
Antibiotics – prohibited by all except allowed by American Humane Certified
Outdoor access – minimum access required by USDA Organic, pasture required by Animal Welfare Approved, not required by other certifications. When provided, there are specific requirements laid out by Humane Farm Animal Care
Space – 6 lb. per square foot required by Humane Farm Animal Care, .67 square foot per bird for roosting, plus range space required by Animal Welfare Approved, 6.2 lb. per square foot required by American Humane Certified, no space requirements from other certifications.
Required dark periods for sleep – 6 to 8 hours required by all except no requirements by USDA Organic or Global Animal Partnership
Beak and toe clipping – Prohibited by Humane Farm Animal Care, Animal Welfare Approved, and Global Animal Partnership, unclear whether allowed by others.

Growth Hormones – Prohibited by all except allowed by American Humane Certified
Antibiotics – Prohibited by all except allowed by American Humane Certified for disease treatment only
Outdoor Access – Pasture required by Animal Welfare Approved, access required by USDA Organic, not required by Global Animal Partnership or American Humane Certified, standards for both indoor and outdoor care by Humane Farm Animal Care
Tail Docking – not allowed by Humane Farm Animal Care, Animal Welfare Approved, Global Animal Partnership, allowed by USDA Organic and American Humane Certified

Growth Hormones – Prohibited by all except allowed by American Humane Certified
Antibiotics – Prohibited by all except allowed by American Humane Certified
Pasture Range Requirements – Pasture raising and finishing required by Animal Welfare Approved, Feedlot and grass allowed by Global Animal Partnership and USDA Organic (minimum pasture requirement), standards for both pasture and grass written by Humane Farm Animal Care, (feedlots allowed) no requirements by American Humane Certified

This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate, on the environmental, social, and political issues related to what and how we eat.


  1. Hi Janée:

    Thanks for this important post. I have struggled with this issue for some time. Six years ago, I could find NO local sources for humanely-raised meat. Plenty of people purveyed "organically" fed meat, but the issue of the animals' welfare was ignored.

    Out of sheer exasperation I became a vegetarian. But about four years ago, I discovered an upstate farmer who pasture-raised animals and killed them humanely. The meat was expensive--at least relative to big AG's subsidized, unnaturally low pricing. But our family committed to eating less meat--and eating only meat coming from farmers who meet our standards of ethical animal welfare.

    Consumer used to eating meat 7 days a week need to educate themselves. They can afford this luxury only because of big AG lobbying, tax-payers' subsidies and horrible, unconscionable suffering of animals.

    Meat has traditionally been a "feast" food--not everyday fare. Our ancestors ate meat occasionally--on holidays and perhaps once or twice a week. It's time to return to this healthier, more humane and more sustainable way of eating. As Michael Pollan advises, we need to "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

    While certification is some help, I believe the only way to assure humane standards is to know your farmer. Take time to meet her, ask questions and let her know your feelings about animals' lives and deaths.

    Today consumers have far more options for buying ethically raised than ever before. I buy from a number of NY farms today, including Hemlock Hill Farm in Cortlandt Manor in Westchetser County. They meet most--but not all--of my ethical standards and they are very open about listening to customer input.

  2. There is increased energy around taking an active part in understanding our bodies and how to feed them without contaminating them. No matter your priority on this issue - whether it is to eat food not contaminated with chemicals and hormones, or preventing animal abuse, the result is the same - more education leads to less abuse by those whose primary focus in profit and ONLY profit. Don't buy that old saw about big corporations using ethical standards - we already know they don't. Read! Read! Read! And keep your children and grandchildren's welfare on the top of your priority list. Thanks so much for posting this important article.

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