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June 22, 2012

Back to the Land: New Certification Program Focuses on Farm Animal Welfare and Consumer Education

Farmers forsake intensive confinement systems for more humane models

All Animals magazine July/August 2012

  • A mother pig forages with her week-old piglets at Becker Lane Organic Farm.   Kathy Milani/The HSUS.

by Karen E. Lange

We wanted cheap food, and the market delivered—with ruthless efficiency. Past the point where it was healthy for us, or safe for the food supply, or good for the environment. Past the point where it benefited rural communities, or was in any way sustainable. And far past the point where the animals involved were treated like living, feeling beings.

Change came fast and seemingly irreversibly. Hens were jammed into small cages; chickens bred to quickly grow big breasts, their bones often unable to support the weight; sows imprisoned in spaces barely larger than their bodies; cattle crowded onto huge feedlots where they stood exposed to the cruelest weather. Farms transformed into CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations). To keep animals alive and profitable in the midst of the crowding, stress, filth, and uncollected corpses, farmers cut off beaks and tails, and administered a never-ending regimen of antibiotics. Staring at the shrink-wrapped packages in the grocery store, most people had no idea of their true cost.

Learn about the rise and fall of extreme confinement »

Then came the obesity epidemic, and food scares, and runoff from manure pits, and undercover footage showing what was actually happening on the mega-farms that had taken over U.S. agriculture. Though we still want cheap food, increasingly, we also want meat that is safe, environmentally friendly, and produced in a more compassionate way. More and more, we’re even willing to pay more for it.

But how well an animal has been treated is a lot harder for consumers to determine than price per pound. And the nation’s food conglomerates know this, hiding the proliferation of factory farms behind idyllic red-barn imagery and appealing descriptions on product labels.

Enter Global Animal Partnership’s 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating system. Launched in 2009 as a pilot program with Whole Foods Market, the initiative—which certifies farms and ranches raising cattle, chickens, pigs, and turkeys—provides clear choices for grocery shoppers and markets for producers who reject the profit-at-any-cost model of intensive confinement.

“We think we can change agriculture,” says Edmund LaMacchia, a global vice president at Whole Foods.

Savvy consumers may already be familiar with other labels—Food Alliance Certified, Certified Humane, and Animal Welfare Approved are just a few examples. What distinguishes GAP is its tiered program that certifies farms at six levels of welfare and its diverse leadership of producers, academics, retailers, and animal protection advocates from The HSUS and other organizations. The levels mandate progressively higher welfare practices, starting with Step 1’s requirement prohibiting confinement in cages and crates and leading to Step 5+, which requires on-site or local slaughter (saving animals from the stress of transport).

GAP works with third-party auditors and certifiers to assess compliance with its standards. The auditors visit farms every 15 months and inspect not only animals and buildings but feed tags, medical records, and veterinary and other receipts. “You can’t fake it,” says Joe Maxwell, The HSUS’s director of rural outreach and development and a Missouri pig farmer who’s certified at Step 3, a label that means his animals have daytime access to the outdoors.

By allowing entry into the system at more attainable levels, GAP motivates a broad spectrum of farmers and ranchers to earn the higher ratings that will further improve welfare and presumably bring premiums for their products. “Even in our early years, we already work with producers who have moved up the step ladder,” says GAP executive director Miyun Park, a former HSUS vice president of farm animal welfare.

About 1 percent of the 9 billion animals raised each year in this country for meat come from farms certified under GAP standards, says Steven Gross, chairman of Farm Forward and a member of GAP’s board of directors. That represents 144 million animals raised each year on 1,815 farms, and there’s plenty of room for growth: Step 1, which gets animals out of cages and crates, and Step 2, which adds environmental enrichment, can be achieved by both big and small farms that still keep their animals indoors. On the demand side, an estimated 20 percent of food sold is purchased by people with what marketers call “lifestyles of health and sustainability”—just the sort who have an interest in animal welfare.

“We’re seeing customers buying up the ratings scale at a quicker rate than I thought we would,” Whole Foods’ LaMacchia says. 

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