By Katie Marsico
As Americans have grown increasingly aware of what they eat, it follows that most people are also becoming more educated about where their food comes from. Whether consumers stick to vegetarian or meat-based diets, everyday shoppers on either meal plan are finding it easier to advocate for the rights of farm animals. Proponents of humane farming, an emerging movement in agriculture, adhere to methods that are concerned with animal welfare, such as the animal’s diet, housing, and care. These agriculturalists argue that their philosophy results in a higher quality of food, improved taste, and overall better treatment of animals.
As consumers learn more about the horrors that exist in many factory farms, humane agriculture is undoubtedly on the rise. It may shock the average shopper to discover that grain-fed cows in feedlots often suffer digestive disorders at a greater frequency than their pastured, grass-fed counterparts or that battery-cage hens typically share an unsanitary, constrictive environment with numerous other birds and may not even have room to spread their wings.
But what’s our nation’s answer to these appalling instances of cruelty, and which companies are making a name for themselves by serving up compassion to consumers?
As director of the Factory Farming Campaign for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) based in Washington, D.C., Paul Shapiro argues that this agricultural trend is simply becoming a matter of demand driving supply.
“As more people learn about the horrors of factory farming, they are insisting that producers end the most egregious cruelties,” Shapiro explains. “These include battery cages for laying hens, gestation crates for pigs, and veal crates for calves.” Shapiro uses cage-free eggs as an example of an agricultural product that typically involves less suffering than a standard factory-farmed item.
“That’s not to say that cage-free necessarily means ‘cruelty-free,’” Shapiro clarifies, “but it’s a definite improvement.” Whereas factory-farmed hens often live in overcrowded, filthy conditions and generally don’t have enough space for even minimal movement, cage-free birds roam uninhibited in barns or warehouses. Many, however, are still debeaked, and most are not allowed to venture outdoors.
But as consumers make markedly improved decisions to better the lives of everything from turkeys to bison, how can they determine which products are the result of humane agriculture?
Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC) in Herndon, Virginia, provides producers with the Certified Humane Raised & Handled logo if they adhere to third-party standards established by animal scientists and veterinarians. These standards speak to several aspects of a farm animal’s life, including nutrition, housing, and general health and care.
According to the HFAC website, a recent study done for United Egg Producers indicates that 75 percent of American consumers would choose “food products certified as protecting animal care over those that are not.” The same study reveals that this decision stands irrespective of cost.
“Factory-farmed products may cost a little less,” Shapiro says, “but it’s the animals that are paying the extra price when they are forced to endure cruelty in factory-farm facilities.”
Roger Gerber is the president of Blackwing Quality Meats in Antioch, Illinois. Blackwing carries the Certified Humane Raised & Handled logo and is a supplier of several products, including beef, bison, and chicken. From Gerber’s perspective, the quality of Blackwing’s meat directly correlates to the stress level of the animals.
“Besides being an animal lover, I know that stress makes animals sick and sometimes even kills them,” Gerber says. “Our animals are never under stress, so there’s no secretion of hormones during the kill stage. These hormones can affect the flavor of the meat.” As opposed to overcrowding animals in feedlots, Gerber and his team offer a free-range environment and never employ the use of probes.
Like Gerber, Cyd Szymanski of Nest Fresh Eggs also favors humane farming methods. Szymanski’s farm is based out Denver, Colorado, and has a 13-year history of offering consumers cage-free eggs.
“I grew up on a large caged layer farm and witnessed how the birds were treated,” Szymanski says. “I could see there was an opportunity for a more humane way of providing an excellent protein source to the consumer. All of our birds have at least 1.25 square feet and always have feed and water available to them. They roam free in large barns and have perch and dusting areas. We do not use antibiotics, and we feed a vegetarian diet.” Szymanski also insists that consumers indicate in their feedback that they perceive an improved taste in her product.
“Additionally, lack of antibiotics and the decreased density eliminate what you don’t want from an egg—antibiotic overload and elevated levels of cortisol, adrenaline, and other stress hormones. Besides affecting taste, we now know these hormones cause inflammation, which frequently leads to a host of health problems in humans.” For Szymanski, the reward of what humane farmers do outweighs competition from factory farmers who can mass-produce dairy, meat, and poultry items at an often cheaper cost to the consumer.
“We treat our animals with respect, valuing them for the sustenance they give us and the sacrifice it takes,” Szymanski explains. “The differences between us [and factory farmers] are so immense that it can hardly be described as the same industry.”
And what of the consumers who are willing to pay the extra price for the added taste, quality, and compassion? Along with his wife, Cathal Armstrong founded Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, Virginia. He also acts as chef in the 100-seat bistro and tasting room that has served presidents, first ladies, and other notables that frequent the Washington, D.C., area. Armstrong prepares sophisticated dishes with humane farm products and insists that this decision is common sense.
“We’re just trying to provide the best food to our guests,” Armstrong says. “From a humane perspective, my wife and I have always been animal lovers.” But there’s more to it than that. He notes that one of his goals is to raise standards even higher for farmers who practice humane agriculture. With cooking shows and competitions becoming increasingly popular, much of the rise in humane farming can be attributed to chefs. Armstrong is confident that, when even a small group of individuals begin this kind of trend, it has the potential to expand across the nation.
“Every step we take in promoting the availability of humane foods is a step in the right direction. People need to realize that they have the power to make a difference. As the old adage goes, the quickest way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, and I find that the patrons who dine here listen to what I tell them.”
From animal-welfare groups to agriculturalists to gourmet chefs, advocates are working hard to educate and inform the public. In a world where positive change often necessitates tremendous action and outcry, it’s important for everyday consumers to realize how they can improve countless lives simply by making humane choices about what they eat.
Blackwing Quality Meats
The Humane Society of the United States
Nest Fresh Eggs