Just in time for Christmas, the Animal Welfare Institute has launched the "Animal Welfare Approved" seal. It can be applied to meat, poultry, dairy products and eggs "that feature the highest standards for the humane treatment of farm animals. According to AWI, more than 500 farms comply with the standards. The seal will be targeted toward consumers, grocers, chefs and other food buyers. 

Hears where it gets good: It will provide "one comprehensive seal that differentiates the family farms that treat their animals humanely from agribusinesses that subject animals to cruel and unnatural conditions," noted an AWI release.

Read this thoroughly.

"At the heart of our standards is concern and advocacy for the animals," says Cathy Liss, AWI president. "While many other specialty labels may begin with the economic interests of industrialized agribusiness in mind, Animal Welfare Approved prioritizes each individual animal's comfort and well-being."

AWI goes on to say "Animal Welfare Approved is the first seal to guarantee that humanely labeled products do not come from agribusinesses that raise the majority of their animals under cruel and unnatural conditions while also rearing some according to so- called humane standards."

Only independent family farms can earn the Animal Welfare Approved seal, although AWI didn't outline the criteria used to designate such farms. Among the aspects required to meet the seal's standards is no debeaking in   chickens or docking piglets' tails. (Although AWI used the language "cutting the beaks off of live chickens and cutting the tails off of live pigs.") The standards also require an enriched environment where the animals can socialize naturally and have no fear or stress-induced inclination to harm each other.

AWI's program "is designed to revitalize a culture of family-owned and managed farms, believing that family farmers have a true connection to and stake in the health of their animals that is lost when factory farms are run by hired hands and distant, corporate owners," says Liss.

Providing further endorsement is singer Willie Nelson: "Family farmers are the heart of this great country. And at their heart is a deep love and respect for the land and the animals they raise. The Animal Welfare Approved seal is a badge of honor for family farmers, since their attention to the health and well-being of their animals results in humane practices that is a model for all."

Other supporters include Robert Kennedy, Jr., actor Rosemary Harris, chef Dan Barber (co-owner of Blue Hill restaurant in New York City). Of course Bill Niman, founder of Niman Ranch, supports the effort, as farms that supply his pork were the first to earn the seal.

"Scientists, veterinarians and farmers were consulted during the drafting of the Animal Welfare Approved standards," assures AWI. Its agents inspect farms for compliance before awarding the seal, and those farms "continue to be inspected after a farm has been endorsed."

For a complete list of the requirements for acceptance into the program, go to http://www.AnimalWelfareApproved.org.