Welfare certification program expands, aids small processors

Apr 12, 2013

It’s nothing new that consumers are both increasingly interested in how their food is raised and disconnected with the realities of production agriculture. A good number of certifications and assurance programs have arisen to meet this growing trend in consumer interest.

Among the more noteworthy third-party welfare certification programs is Animal Welfare Approved (AWA). The program has been growing and helping improve farmer-to-consumer marketing and understanding, as well and working to improve other areas of livestock agriculture.

AWA is similar to other welfare certification programs such as Whole Foods’ 5-Step system or Food Alliance’s program, but has the distinctions of being the only entirely free welfare certification program for farmers, being funded entirely by donations, and not participating in (or being associated with those engaged in) lobbying and/or litigation activities.

The program is not for everyone and meeting the standards can be difficult given its requirements and prohibitions. The organization prides itself on ranking “most stringent” among all third-party welfare certifiers according to the World Society for the Protection of Animals. Despite this, AWA has certified 188 beef operations in the U.S. and Canada, as well as 19 co-ops and 12 Community Supported Agricultural (CSA) beef operations to date. The largest AWA beef operation is 5,500-head strong, but most run about 400 head.

Last year, WLJ interviewed AWA Program Director Andrew Gunther about the state of the program and what it can offer cattlemen. Since then, the program has grown, expanded and diversified the scope of their standards, and achieved rare international recognition.

“We’ve continued to grow,” said Gunther, when asked what has changed over the past year. “On the conservative side, I’d say we get 20 applications a month for new farmers. We’ve had to employ more people on our compliance team to keep up with demand.”

Gunther said a lot of growth was coming from California and the West Coast states in general. California alone has 42 AWA-certified farms, co-ops and CSAs, as well as dozens of stores, farmers’ markets, and restaurants selling AWA-certified meats and produce.

“I can only express my excitement at how fast we’re growing,” said Gunther.

Another interesting development with AWA is the launch of their “Certified Wildlife Friendly” program last fall. The program audits operations and certifies that they meet strict requirements for ranching without harming nativepredators. The program is supposedly the first of its kind in the U.S. and has a number of pilot farm programs underway since the fall.

Among the successes Gunther reported was the recent accreditation of AWA by the International Standards Organization (ISO), making it the only program in the country so recognized. ISO is the world’s largest developer of voluntary International Standards and ISO 65 is specifically designed to ensure that a certification body is operating in a consistent and reliable manner in all aspects of its work. The announcement came only a day before Gunther spoke with WLJ.

“We got ISO 65 and that’s a big deal,” he said, verbally beaming about the accolade.

In the formal announcement of the accreditation, Gunther explained the value of the recognition:

“We can always tell the public that we’re trustworthy when it comes to highwelfare, sustainable farming practices, but with all the misleading claims out there, it really helps to have this position confirmed by a third party through ISO 65.”

When asked what new challenges AWA has seen in the past year, Gunther reported that he couldn’t think of anything new, but that longstanding challenges persist.

“It’s access to markets and getting farmers connected to consumers. And a continuing need to educate farmers and consumers.”

Something else AWA has been up to lately—though not limited to the past year—has been to help build up farmer-to-consumer infrastructures to address the aforementioned challenges. Aiding small meat processors has been one focus in this effort.

Gunther explained that while demand is growing for small processing plants, the economics of start-up is a problem, which limits the number of small processors out there. The economy of scale which large processors enjoy has driven consumerlevel prices low relative to what smaller processors can offer, and this can cause problems in terms of business for existing plants and even more so for potential start-ups.

“We’re finding a number of small processors are flourishing in the broad market place because there is a demand. But they’re not super competitive, so what we’ve tried to do is to help these plants hook up with farmers.”

In addition to getting farmers and small processors connected with each other, AWA grants have been helping small processors meet the needs of their existing customers. One example was Acre Station Meat Farm which received one of AWA’s Good Husbandry grants to update their off-loading ramp to meet AWA standards. In doing so they were able to be certified and answer many of their customers’ requests for a place to process their AWA animals.

“We are proud to help our customers showcase the AWA logo on their products,” Acre Station Meat Farm owners Richard and Ronnie Huettmann wrote in a letter published in AWA’s most recent newsletter. “We know that the logo helps them to add value to their meat and livestock products. By working together, we are all helping to support our local economy.”

Several AWA grants, amounting to tens of thousands of dollars, have been given out to small processors to improve their existing facilities or to create mobile processing units in the past few years. Mobile slaughter and processing “plants” are relatively new things and have cropped up in response to growing demand for local meat and the small-scale processing services necessitated to meet that demand.

Even in the relatively small market that is mobile slaughter and processing units, the AWA grant-funded mobile processing units are very small. Compared to one of AWA’s $5,000 grants which furnished a full mobile poultry processing facility, a 36-foot rig trailer equipped to handle cattle, hogs and sheep can cost well over $200,000.

AWA has frequently stated in its standards, press releases, and around its site that improving access to mobile slaughter and processing facilities for small producers is a priority. However, making that a reality is a work in progress. — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor