The American Humane Association has introduced animal welfare guidelines for producers to market dairy, beef, or poultry products with a certification from the AHA. Aimed at consumers willing to pay a premium for the added assurance the animals were raised in accordance with the AHA guidelines, the Free Farmed Certification Program is intended to spark similar market-driven changes throughout the food animal industry.
The Free Farmed label, according to the AHA, means that throughout the animal's life, it was raised "free" of unnecessary fear and distress, pain, injury and disease, discomfort, and hunger and thirst.
The AHA makes no claims that the food is any more or less safe than other food. The USDA Agricultural Marketing Service is allowing certified producers to display Free Farmed labels on their food products. Three organic farms in California, Wisconsin, and Montana have already been certified.
For three years the AHA Standards Scientific Committee, a team of veterinarians and advisors on animal behavior and welfare, developed humane guidelines for laying hens, broiler chickens, and beef and dairy cattle.
Free Farmed certification requires producers to raise food animals in a more spacious environment, rapidly seek veterinary assistance when needed, and provide ready access to food and water. Included in the guidelines are training and education standards for farm management and staff.
Prohibited by the guidelines are such widely accepted practices as induced molting and administering antibiotics as growth promoters.
This September the AHA announced its certification program at a press conference in Washington, DC. "Animals raised for food often endure conditions of extreme confinement, where they cannot express their behaviors. This program will go far in changing that," said Tim O'Brien, AHA president and chief executive officer.
The Free Farmed certification program is comparable to what the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals launched in the United Kingdom in 1994. There, producers, retailers, and others formed Freedom Food, an alternative food brand certified as having come from humanely raised animals.
Rather than creating a new brand and trying to compete in the US market, the AHA hopes consumer demand will compel food animal producers to adopt humane guidelines.
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has officially endorsed the AHA program. As of press time, the AVMA has not officially reviewed the program and, therefore, has not decided on the merit of the program.
The Standards Scientific Committee has created draft guidelines for pigs and sheep, with plans for turkeys. Temple Grandin, PhD, a consultant with the McDonald's Corp renowned for her innovations in reducing stress in food animals, will help the committee devise slaughter and transportation guidelines.
"Our ambition is to have every producer be able to meet these standards. We want this very mainstream," said Adele Douglass, executive director of the nonprofit Farm Animal Services. The AHA started the Washington, DC-based affiliate to supervise the inspection, certification, and compliance of producers who have applied for Free Farmed certification.
Farm Animal Services is funded by the AHA but will eventually be supported entirely through royalties from product sales. Inspections cost $400, but the need to increase the number of certified producers for the AHA affiliate to be self-sufficient is obvious.
Assessors conduct on-site inspections to determine compliance by production operations. Following the inspection, assessors contact the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, which may audit the producer to verify the assessor's work. The government will audit 25 percent of AHA inspections, Douglass said.
Douglass is the former director of public policy for the AHA. She believes the certification program is a practical alternative to improving the lives of food animals without waiting for sympathetic legislation.
The AHA cites a 1999 survey by the Animal Industry Foundation that indicates 44 percent of consumers are willing to pay up to five percent more for meat and poultry products labeled as coming from humanely raised animals.
The nonprofit Animal Industry Foundation educates consumers about the benefits of modern animal production and its influence on the quality of animal life. According to AIF President Steve Kopperud, the survey also found only 20 percent of consumers are willing to buy certified food if the costs rise 10 percent.
"I think that's significant," he said. "While there's a concern there, it isn't going to run as far or as deep as some on the other side would like it to."
Most of the food animal producer groups are reviewing the AHA guidelines, but given production costs, most US farmers can't afford to implement the extra standards unless processors and consumers are willing to pay more, Kopperud said.
Anticipating this objection, the AHA is attempting to offset production costs by keeping royalties received by Farm Animal Services to a minimum-four cents per 30 dozen eggs, a dollar per head of cattle, and one cent for every hundredweight of milk.