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How to eat happy meat: Animal welfare certifications explained

By Molly Nakahara
Special to The Union
Animal Welfare Approved laying hens at Local Yolk.
Photo courtesy of Belinda Gutierrez

What motivates your choices at the grocery store? Is it price? Quality? Name brand recognition? We are bombarded with information as we walk down the aisles of any store in search of our next meal and it can be challenging to distinguish a marketing claim from actual information about the products we are eating. Third-party certifications offer one solution for consumers looking to learn more about what they are buying at the grocery store.

Local Yolk eggs with Animal Welfare Approved certification are sold throughout Nevada County.
Photo courtesy of Belinda Gutierrez

Third-party certification occurs when an independent organization reviews the manufacturing and production process of a certain product to determine its compliance with a specific set of standards. Many of these certifications, like Certified Organic and Fair Trade Certified, are readily available at most grocery stores. There is a growing number of third-party certified products now available in the meat, dairy and egg departments as well, providing customers with vital information about the way that the animals we eat were raised.

The Nevada County Food Assessment published in December 2020 by the Nevada County Food Policy Council and available for download on the Sierra Harvest website, shows the positive benefits to community health and well-being that occur when consumers choose humanely raised animal products raised by local ranchers. According to the assessment, a key tenant of animal welfare is creating farm systems that allow animals “to exhibit natural animal behaviors, in an environment that is free of cruelty, in a way that promotes the health of the animal and the land.” Not only do local ranches provide humanely raised meat for our tables, they also provide jobs, recirculate money in the local economy, mitigate climate change, and provide essential firebreaks for our communities!

The Animal Welfare Information Center at the US Department of Agriculture lists nine animal welfare certifications that are available to American producers including Certified Humane, Animal Welfare Approved, and the Global Animal Partnership’s Animal Welfare Certified. A quick online search reveals the welfare standards required by each of these certifications and the specific needs of each species of farm animal. These standards can be challenging for farms to follow and track, but many farms, particularly small, family-run operations, are already meeting the requirements of certification.

For Belinda Guitierrez, who owns and runs Local Yolk in Pilot Hill, California, the choice to certify their 1,500 laying hens as Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) was an easy decision. It was also a key piece of sharing her farming practices with customers who purchase eggs in retail locations in Placer, Nevada, El Dorado, Sacramento, and San Francisco counties.

“We were already practicing what was required to get an AWA certification, so it was a no brainer to apply,” said Gutierrez. “Our eggs are laid by our amazing team of chickens that are outside year-round on our family ranch. Our entire operation is mobile including feeders, waterers, lay coops, and roosting coops meaning the hens can forage on new pasture and bugs continuously and are not confined to a barn. Our hard-working farm crew tend to the flock and hand collect the eggs daily.”

Local Yolk eggs are sold in retail outlets across Nevada County.

Animal welfare certification standards are an educational resource for farmers. For a period of time, the farm that I own and operate, Dinner Bell Farm, was certified Animal Welfare Approved. The certification allowed us to tell the story of our farm to customers that we did not interact with and, more importantly, taught us about raising our animals in a stress free and healthy farm system. We are first generation farmers and gaining the skillset required to raise animals proved challenging. We gleaned crucial information from the welfare standards that taught us to put as little stress as possible on our animals, which in turn created a higher quality product and increased worker safety on our farm. For anyone getting started with animal agriculture, regardless of any certification you may choose to have, the certification standards are a readily available and free resource to learn from.

In my role as Farm Institute Director at Sierra Harvest, I know that third-party certifications often help beginning farmers improve business management. Certification requires detailed record keeping of both farm activities and financials, and great recordkeeping is essential for farm success. Certifications also help to distinguish and validate a beginning farmer‘s reputation, increasing opportunities and sales.

Not all farms that raise animals in high welfare systems choose to certify. “If a farmer’s target market is direct-to-consumer through farmers’ markets or some other form of direct sales, the certification is not required nor needed,” says Roger Ingram, UC Cooperative Extension Livestock and Natural Resources Advisor, Emeritus. “These customers are end users who have some sort of understanding of how the animals are raised through social media, website, and direct contact with customers.” In other words, a great way to learn more about the food you eat is to get to know the people who produce it.

To buy humanely raised animal products at the grocery store, choose products with third-party animal welfare certifications on their labels. Better yet, purchase directly from a local farm, neighbor, or 4-H project and learn about farming practices and the treatment of animals directly from the people who spend their days raising the meat we eat.

To learn more about the Nevada County Food Policy Council, email miriam@sierraharvest.org. Read the Nevada County Food System Assessment at https://sierraharvest.org/connect/food-policy-council/.

Learn more about farmer’s markets at themarketatgrassvalley.com and ncfarmersmarket.org.

Molly Nakahara is the Farm Institute director at Sierra Harvest and a farmer at Dinner Bell Farm.

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