HFAC executive director Adele Douglass told FoodProductionDaily clearer standards are a must because of increased consumer demand for humane products, and a desire for clarity in egg and poultry labelling.
“When consumers see the Certified Humane label they have confidence in it, and they know what it means,” she said. “If a producer has ‘free range’ or ‘pasture raised’ on their egg carton, there has to be a clear definition in our standards as to what that means as well."
Because there previously had been no solid, legal definition for the phrases, those words on two different packages can be wildly different things. HFAC’s 28-member scientific committee, after nearly two years poring over research and intense discussion, has come up with stronger standards for products labelled Certified Humane.
The HFAC’s laying-hen standards divide laying hen standards into three sections. One discusses free range birds, another discusses animals raised in pastures and a third for birds that roam outdoors on a seasonal basis.
Current US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and poultry industry standards hold that to be free range, chickens have “outdoor access.” This can designate space as limited as a “pop hole” to the outdoor world (no full-body access) and no minimum space requirement.
The bolstered HFAC free-range requirement calls for 2 sq. ft. allowed per bird. The hens must be outdoors (weather permitting or seasonal) for at least six hours per day.
Now, per HFAC standards, poultry labelled “pasture raised” can have no more than 1,000 birds per 2.5 acres, or 108 sq. ft. per bird. Additionally, hens must be outdoors all throughout the year, with housing where hens can dwell at night.
Douglass explained egg purveyors looking to inscribe their packaging with “free range” or “pasture raised” must meet the definitions, as well as all other provisos spelled out in HFAC’s Laying Hen Standards. If they don’t pass muster in those areas, they can only use the Certified Humane “cage free” or “barn raised” designation.
Worth the work
While bringing such changes to the entire industry takes time, Douglass said, pursuing clearer standards and best practices is worth the time and effort.
“We at HFAC have the opportunity to break ground, and we do so every year as we revise and raise our standards,” she said.
The revised HFAC standards for laying hens also include terms for raising the chickens in barns with or without access. These spell out standards for air cleanliness, floor litter for dust bathing, elevated perches, feeder and drinker space, and barring of animal by-products and antibiotics.
“Our process for changing our standards is very complex,” Douglass said. “We start with our scientific committee; we then send drafts to all the laying hen producers in the program for their input and comments, we receive those comments back and then discuss with a group of producers and members of the scientific committee.”
The buck doesn’t stop there—HFAC, after scientific input, redrafts the terms and sends to its Standards Committee (made up of animal scientists, producers, public representatives, another certification organization, a retail person, and a member of the HFAC board) for further scrutiny.
If no further revisions are needed, the standard goes to the board of directors. Producers in with the HFAC are kept informed all along the way.
“Our producers all had the opportunity for input and comments and are aware of what the new designations require and have been for at least the last year or more,” Douglass said.
To date, three companies have signed on to the “pasture raised” egg program: Vital Farms in Texas, White Oak Pastures in Georgia, and Ayrshire Farm in Virginia. Happy Egg in California currently is the only 100% “free range” company on the roster.