Animal Welfare Approved offers free certification

Jan 20, 2012

Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) is a third-party animal welfare group which certifies farm products produced under its rigorous standards. The group is dedicated to pastoral, family farming and improving the welfare of farm animals across the country.

AWA was founded in 2006 and began as a division of the Animal Welfare Institute focused exclusively on farm animal welfare. Unlike its parent organization, AWA focuses strictly on certification and auditing of participating farms. They are not engaged in things like legal involvement and lobbying.

“The only reason we exist is to identify, audit and certify farms which operate to our standards,” Andrew Gunther, program director, said simply.

One thing separates AWA from similar third-party welfare certification programs—it’s free! That is a noteworthy detail in today’s world of pay-for-play welfare certification organizations. Participation in the program, including farm audits, is entirely free for farmers. The 501 (c) (3) nonprofit is entirely funded by donations from individuals and foundations.

“We’re lucky we have this amount of dedication,” Gunther said regarding their funding.

When questioned on the sources of their funding, Gunther made a point to say donations from “groups aiming to end animal agriculture” were not accepted and AWA was in no way associated with such groups. This sets AWA apart from similar third-party welfare certifiers like the Global Animal Partnership where Wayne Pacelle of Humane Society of the United States sits on the board of directors.


Even though participation is free, that doesn’t mean it’s an open club—not just anyone can join. The group is proud to have been ranked as “most stringent” of all third-party welfare certifiers by the World Society for the Protection of Animals.

The regulations governing AWA-certified farms are extensive. Set aside at least an hour for a careful read of the regulations on beef-producing operations alone.

Regulations cover everything from ownership to management to breeding practices to slaughter. No conceptual or behavioral stone was left unturned in the AWA’s exceptionally detailed set of standards.

The list of prohibited items and practices is similarly staggering. Commonly used things banned on AWA certified farms include semen from ebryo-transfer bulls, anything (other than basic feed) that promotes growth, electric prods, heat synchronizers and glue traps for rodent control. Prohibited practices include non-therapeutic antibiotic use, tail docking, dehorning, spaying, notching of ears or dewlaps, branding, selling animals to feedlots and the use of live or video auctions. There is also a long list of time-relative prohibitions regarding things like age of castration, calving, disbudding and weaning.

Despite the overwhelming list of rules and prohibitions, it is important to note the level of flexibility involved with AWA. Italicized notes pepper the regulations which state exceptions or derogations are permitted with sufficient reasoning. For example, following the prohibition against transport to slaughter facilities lasting longer than eight hours, there is a note of exceptions in situations where an AWAcertified slaughter facility is not available within the time/distance limitation.

Gunther commented that AWA understands every farmer does things a little differently and that the standards try to be flexible enough to fit individual needs while remaining true to the spirit of animal welfare.

The program

AWA currently operates with a staff of 12 coordinators, directors and specialists, and 14 part-time contracted auditors. All auditors have considerable hands-on farming experience, most of them having grown up on their family’s farm or ranch if not still working their own. The ranks of auditors include university professors and extension personnel, industry old-timers and veterinarians.

“Need [for auditors] is growing exponentially,” Gunther said, adding that he hopes to see the auditor ranks grow to 30-40 in 2012. Currently, auditors visit an average of two farms per contracted day within their respective territories. Individual audits can take anywhere from two hours to several days depending on the size and complexity of the operation being assessed.

According to the website, AWA-certified farms range in size from the smallest at two acres to the largest at a half-million acres. A Jan. 10 press release congratulated 12-year-old Shelby Grebenc of Happy Chapped Chicken Butt Farm, Broomfield, CO, as the youngest AWA-certified farmer to date.

Gunther credited the success of the program and its anticipated growth to increasing consumer interest in animal welfare and consumer desire to know where their food comes from. Gunther continued, saying AWA’s third-party certification “lets the consumer have confidence in the farmer’s statements [about their animals’ welfare].”

According to the AWA website, the benefits of participation are numerous.

The more business-related benefits include product labeling, promotional materials, promotion on their website, grants, marketing and informational support.

Despite its potential benefits, AWA is clearly not for everyone. The amount of time necessary for its stringent record-keeping requirements alone might turn people away. However, it offers an opportunity to those who wish to take the time and effort to operate under their standards.

“We just believe pastoral farming can feed the world,” said Gunther. If you share this belief and are interested in learning more, information is available at Animal — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor