Wouldn't You Prefer Your Meal Be More Animal Welfare-Friendly?

More consumers are demanding access to healthier, more humanely produced food.

Pigs at factory farm
Photo Credit: Pattakorn Uttarasak/Shutterstock

“The source and fountainhead of genuine an enlightened public opinion,” said Upton Sinclair, the muckraking journalist whose bestseller The Jungle birthed government food regulation as we know it today. When Sinclair laid bare the dirty details of slaughterhouses for Americans to see, the effect was immediate and immense. Congress had considered—and largely ignored—nearly 100 regulatory bills since 1879, but President Roosevelt signed the Pure Food and Drug Act into law in 1906, the same year as Sinclair’s publication. Sinclair had struck a nerve, and the system responded.

A century later, to the frustration of some and the relief of others, the regulation of industry has greatly expanded. However, not much has changed for farm animals, with animal welfare regulation on farms sorely lagging behind societal values. To fill this void and improve farming conditions, agriculture has embraced the innovative potential of voluntary regulation. Voluntary sustainability standards can keep up with dynamic markets and evolving consumer tastes without the lag time of government regulation. In the era of regulatory freezes and two-for-one regulation limits, market interventions are becoming even more attractive.

Independent certification schemes have proliferated over the past several decades, driven by consumer demand for socially responsible products. Unilever released a study in January of this year showcasing the vast global demand for sustainable products, and the equally vast potential for profit to businesses that choose to certify their sustainability (a €966-billion-over $1-trillion- market, by Unilever’s estimate). The Rain Forest Alliance Certified, Fair Trade Certified and Energy Star Certified certifications have become ubiquitous in their respective fields, with many conscientious consumers practically expecting them from companies.

Certifying animal welfare

Modern agriculture has undergone huge changes in recent history, overhauling and intensifying systems in order to produce the most product with the least inputs. For animal agriculture, this has meant bringing animals indoors, confining them to very small spaces, and altering their genetics and feed to get them to market weight as quickly as possible. However, these “efficiencies” have had consequences for animals’ welfare that have left industrial animal agriculture at odds with the majority of consumers who are increasingly concerned about farm animal treatment.

In the face of government refusal to adequately regulate animal agriculture, voluntary welfare certification programs have stepped in to fill this void. Demand for third-party animal welfare certification is quickly gaining steam as consumers continue to educate themselves about certifications and how to request them. Now the supply of certified products must grow and push us towards a more humane, transparent food system. Certified higher-welfare farming can offer major benefits for animals, farmers, and consumers. Welfare-certified farmers gain access to fast-growing markets that offer dependable, premium pricing for their products.

Higher-welfare farmers, especially those who have transitioned from conventional systems, often cite a healthier, more enjoyable environment for themselves and their animals. Meaningful welfare certification programs forbid the worst practices on farms, including intense confinement systems and barren environments, instead requiring farms to provide animals with adequate space and enrichments to enable them to carry out their natural behaviors. A chicken can be a chicken, free to dust-bathe, peck and perch. Consumers can easily identify welfare-certified products in the grocery store and at their local farmers markets. The certification logos indicate to consumers that a third-party has affirmed that animals are being raised to meaningfully better standards.

The ASPCA and Vermont Law School’s Center for Agriculture and Food Systems (CAFS) are doing their part to help farmers raising animals—as well as food companies, restaurant owners and chefs sourcing animal products - understand welfare certification programs and their potential benefits through a Farm Animal Welfare Certification Guide. The guide provides detailed descriptions and comparisons of three standards—Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Humane® and Global Animal Partnership—along with six candid farmer case studies, which offer a look at the experiences of welfare-certified farmers from across the country. Finally, the guide identifies different private, federal and state funding opportunities available to farmers who are investing in animal welfare certification.

Looking forward

Agriculture is at a critical point in its evolution. In the past few years, we’ve seen a collective move to rid animal agriculture of its cruelest practices. 10 states have passed laws banning extreme confinement on farms. The USDA just released new and improved animal welfare rules for its USDA Organic program, requiring meaningful outdoor access and enrichments for egg-laying hens and meat chickens and an end to many painful mutilations. Almost all major restaurants, grocery stores and food services providers have committed to timelines for sourcing only cage-free eggs. Even cities are committing to sourcing higher-welfare food—the Good Food Purchasing Program has already been adopted in Los Angeles and San Francisco, with active campaigns ongoing in five other major cities. In the past year alone, companies like Starbucks, Panera and Aramark have committed to timelines for sourcing healthier breeds of welfare-certified chicken.

Ensuring that all people have access to healthier, more humane, and responsibly produced food is a goal we all share. In the face of an uncertain regulatory future, independent welfare certification programs can provide an effective means of voluntary regulation. Socially-conscious consumers, companies and farmers that fully embrace these certifications can help push us closer to an agricultural system where factory farming is obsolete.

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Kara Shannon is the manager of the ASPCA Farm Animal Welfare Campaign.

Andrea Folds is a research assistant at Vermont Law School’s Center for Agriculture and Food Systems.