I’ve spent my professional career working to improve the lives of farm animals: beef cattle, dairy cattle, small ruminants, and hogs were all under my watchful eye as I provided technical expertise for Zoetis, the world’s largest animal health company, as well as my own large animal practice. Many of my days were spent mucking around farms across the country, and I own more pairs of manure-stained coveralls than I care to admit. In short, you could say I’m passionate about the agriculture industry and the collective issues that we face.
Throughout my time in agriculture and food production, I’ve noticed a change in consumer behavior: in particular, a growing demand for humanely raised products. Today’s consumers are more concerned about farm animal welfare than ever before—in a recent American Humane survey of 5,900 Americans, 94 percent claimed to be “very concerned” about the issue, in fact—a number up from 89 percent the prior year.
Small and large farms, and anything in between, are responding to the public’s growing concern by adopting higher standards of animal welfare. With less than 2% of the country’s population exposed to the agriculture industry growing up, however, there is still too-wide of a margin allowing confusion and distrust to grow between producer and consumer.
While some producers have chosen to introspectively analyze their humane practices, self-reporting their welfare achievements is fundamentally biased and offers less than enough validity for the ever-inquisitive consumer. Third-party validation by a trusted organization with verifiable and impartial science-based standards can do much more to earn the confidence that a producer is meeting the high levels of humane animal care rightly demanded by the modern public.
An early adopter of this viewpoint, American Humane, the country’s oldest and first animal welfare organization, created the first welfare certification program in the United States to ensure the humane treatment of farm animals, in 2000.
The American Humane Certified program provides independent, third-party verification that certified producers’ treatment and care of farm animals meets the organization’s rigorous animal welfare standards. The standards, which were created with input from renowned animal science experts and veterinarians, are frequently reviewed by a Scientific Advisory Committee comprised of industry leaders like Dr. Temple Grandin and Dr. Thomas Parsons, among many admirable others.
Before I was appointed as the National Director of the American Humane Farm Program last month, my life’s work was based in veterinary science, so it should come as no surprise that I gravitate toward science-based standards such as these. Not only do the American Humane Certified standards—and the program—provide consumers with a peek behind farmer’s barn doors, but they also are simply what is best for the animals.
And admittedly, they should be—the program’s standards were built upon the Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare: freedom from hunger and thirst; freedom from discomfort; freedom from pain, injury, and disease; freedom to express normal and natural behavior; and freedom from fear and distress.
While the average consumer may not be familiar with these freedoms, the public’s growing concern with animal welfare seems to support them, and their purchasing power is certain to follow. With the industry on the cusp of seemingly inevitable change, it’s now more important than ever to shine a positive light on the industry’s best players, which legitimate certification programs like American Humane Certified seek to do.
Thankfully, my new position here allows me the opportunity to shine such a light—our certification program applauds good producers while encouraging those with less-stringent welfare standards to improve their processes—an indirect motivation that I think producers and consumers alike can agree on.
Editor's Note: Dr. Janet Helms is the National Director of the American Humane Farm Program.