Animal farming has changed dramatically over the last 20 years, says Robert Lawrence, MD, director of the Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and co-founder of Meatless Mondays. “Larger and larger numbers of animals are confined in fewer production facilities,” says Lawrence, adding that farm animals are not only cramped in tight quarters, but often never see the light of day. These conditions can trigger abnormal behaviors — pigs chewing on each others’ tails or chickens pecking one another.
According to the World Organisation for Animal Health, which defines animal welfare as “how an animal is coping with the conditions in which it lives,” critical factors in determining an animal’s state of welfare include health, comfort, safety and the ability to express innate behavior.
While the humane treatment of farm animals is federally enforced in some countries, regulations in the United States are far less comprehensive. For example, unlike animals for research and commercial sale, animals reared for food are not covered by the Animal Welfare Act. And while the U.S. Department of Agriculture is charged with ensuring producers practice humane methods of slaughter and interstate transport for most livestock (but not poultry), the USDA does not regulate the care of animals raised for food while on the farm.
Attempts at federal legislation have been made. Two proposals introduced in Congress — the Farm Animal Anti-Cruelty Act of 2008 and the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act of 2010 — both died in committee, and two other bills containing animal welfare components — the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act of 2011 and the Egg Products Inspection Act Amendments of 2012 — have been referred to committee.
Meanwhile, a few states have taken matters into their own hands. California, Colorado, Florida, Maine and Michigan are among those with laws that regulate farm animal housing conditions. Ohio has created a livestock standards board to ensure the health and welfare of livestock species, while Rhode Island recently passed legislation outlawing cattle tail docking (partial amputation) with limited exceptions. And according to the American Veterinary Medical Association, Oregon and Washington have established standards for egg-laying hens in commercial operations.
In addition, innovators in the food industry have created their own programs or turn to private certification agencies, which require farm audits to ensure they meet the agency’s designated standards of care. “The future of animal welfare is bright,” says Lawrence. “It’s a growing movement, but still makes up only a small proportion of the industry.”
Producers who are committed to animal welfare certification say it is more than an ethical decision. “It’s also an economic decision to treat animals well,” says cattle rancher Mary Rickerts, co-managing partner of Prather Ranch in Northern California, which has been certified by Humane Farm Animal Care since 2003. “When you take care of your animals, you produce better meat.”
Julie Berling, director of brand advocacy and marketing for chicken distributor Just BARE in St. Cloud, Minn., agrees. “A happy chicken is a healthy chicken,” says Berling. In addition to the American Humane Certified seal, Just BARE product labels include a code to trace the chicken back to the farm where it was raised.
“Health equates to high quality,” says Berling. “So humane care isn’t only the right thing to do, it’s also what satisfies our customers.”