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    FRESH FOOD: Sustainable Farming: Handle with care

    Retailers and suppliers are sharing the complex task of fostering a proteins industry based on certified humane practices.

    Although most U.S. supermarket chains are taking a wait-and-see approach in announcing formal animal welfare policies, it nonetheless remains an issue that grocers can ill afford to ignore amid consumers' increased interest in where their food comes from and how it's produced.

    John Fiscalini, a fourth-generation Modesto, Calif.-based dairy farmer, elaborates: "Today customers seek much more than just quality in the products they buy. They also want assurance the product was produced using acceptable animal well-being and environmental practices. They want to know we're doing the right things."

    To help ensure its commitment to "do the right thing," Fiscalini Farms -- whose products are available nationally through Safeway, Whole Foods Market, and Trader Joe's -- turned to Urbandale, Iowa-based Validus Services, one of a growing number of independent certification companies that audit production practices and performance in such areas as humane animal handling and management, proper herd health procedures and care, adherence to food and water quality standards, providing housing that promotes animal comfort and cleanliness, and following required biosecurity procedures.

    "Consumers want greater peace of mind that the food products they buy are produced responsibly," notes Earl Dotson, Validus' chief executive. "Companies up and down the food chain are beginning to recognize this and provide products that meet these needs."

    Not surprisingly, Whole Foods took a leading role in the retail sector as the first chain to adopt humane animal treatment standards in 2003. Most recently, the chain discontinued selling live lobsters, opting instead to sell only frozen raw and cooked lobster products from suppliers that meet the chain's specific quality standards for humane treatment, handling, and processing.

    But Whole Foods is certainly not alone. In the past year, a number of regional independents -- among them family-owned Heinen's Fine Foods, D'Agostino Supermarkets, and Andronico's Markets -- have followed suit by dramatically expanding and heavily promoting their programs of certified humane meat, poultry, dairy, and egg products.

    Heinen's held a media event in its Brecksville, Ohio store in late November to launch its affiliation with the "Certified Humane Raised & Handled" program administered by Herndon, Va.-based nonprofit Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC).

    As Tom Heinen, co-president of the eponymous 16-store family chain based in Warrensville Heights, Ohio, sees it, the issue is one of basic decency and respect.

    "We believe in treating everyone fairly and with respect, and this extends to the animals that supply the food we select for our customers," he explains. The company adopted the Certified Humane program "because it is aligned closely with our values as a company," notes Heinen, who works directly with many of the family chain's meat suppliers.

    The Certified Humane Raised & Handled label, which was introduced in May 2003, lets retailers and consumers know that a meat, poultry, egg, or dairy product has been produced in accord with the organization's standards for humane farm animal treatment.

    According to those standards, animals must receive a nutritious, hormone- and antibiotic- free diet, and be provided with shelter, resting areas, and space sufficient to support natural behavior. At presstime there were 57 companies certified to use the label, including the most recent member, Newman Farm Heritage Berkshire Pork, a family-owned and -operated pasture pork operation hailing from Missouri's Southern Ozarks.

    "Our fundamental intent is to make sure our suppliers treat their animals well," says Heinen. "I truly believe a well-treated animal produces the best end result from a taste and quality standpoint. The less stressed they are, the greater their consumption profile. Beside that fact," he adds, "I also believe from a humane perspective, we should treat all animals well."

    His company's new policy has apparently struck a chord. Heinen says he was pleasantly surprised "by the amount of direct feedback we received from customers after we first launched the program." The initial experience has spurred him to become considerably more knowledgeable and inquisitive about the humane handling policies and practices of all of the chain's protein suppliers.

    "Although we're still in the infancy of getting our suppliers lined up, my behavior has really changed in the sense that I have become far more proactive in searching for humane attributes from all of our suppliers," explains Heinen. Indeed, he now views himself as an "advocate for humane animal treatment. I now ask a whole new set of questions about how [a supplier's] animals are treated, and how they view the [humane handling] issue overall."

    Such questions don't always elicit easy answers, and Heinen has also learned that "building his brand around the attributes of Certified Humane" is easier said than done. The grocer readily acknowledges the "quagmire" that can accompany the process of "wading through the other certification programs," whose labels inherently vary due to each organization's own standards and verification requirements.

    Although Heinen says he'll continue seeking out credible, established, certified humane brands, he won't drop or refuse to consider an existing or new protein line because it lacks a specific animal welfare certification label. "At the end of the day, we're most concerned that we're dealing with companies that are following humane standards, instead of necessarily demanding that everyone has an agency certification."

    By the same token, Heinen will approach the item review and authorization process from a "trust but verify" standpoint, as opposed to merely taking a supplier at its word.

    Sharing the science

    Some of the industry's largest protein suppliers are stepping forward with retailers to share details of their comprehensive, science-based animal welfare programs, including Wichita, Kan.-based Cargill Meat Solutions, a leading processor and distributor of fresh beef, pork, and turkey, as well as cooked and marinated meats.

    "Cargill believes it's very important that we work with our customers to explain our standards and how we ensure they are being met," notes Mike Siemens, Cargill's beef program development director.

    In addition to explaining Cargill's animal welfare harvesting guidelines per the American Meat Institute's Recommended Animal Handling Guidelines and Audit Guide -- which are also endorsed by FMI and the National Council of Chain Restaurants, among others -- Siemens says, "The guidelines are considered the gold standard for animal welfare in the United States and around the world.

    "Cargill is a firm believer in adhering to the best practices in the industry regarding the most humane animal welfare standards," he adds. "We continuously review our own processes to ensure our standards are up to date and that the animals are treated in the best possible manner."

    Many of Cargill's best practices have come through working with Temple Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University and a globally renowned animal welfare expert and behaviorist.

    Siemens says various livestock associations are striving to "offer official mechanisms by which an independent third party can conduct an objective on-farm assessment at a producers' operation. Cargill believes this third-party on-site assessment is important and will help ensure that all steps within the livestock welfare program are properly followed."

    As the industry continues to improve its guidelines for livestock welfare programs, Cargill expects retailers to continue to gain interest in these programs as well. Continual education, from suppliers to retailers, and then top consumers, will be key to the industry's success in coupling the market's demand for an ample, high-quality supply with growing public concern about animals' well-being.

    "Overall, retailers have a good understanding of animal welfare issues and what the industry's standards are," notes Siemens. It's been an evolutionary process relying heavily on "increased communication between suppliers and retailers," he says. "By engaging our retail customers and by helping them learn about these societal issues, our customers will be more prepared to answer consumers' questions."

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