Feed lots and meat processing evoke unpleasant images in the minds of many shoppers. So it should come as no surprise that more than two-thirds of the country's natural-leaning consumers would be willing to pay more for meat and dairy products produced on farms that don't use growth hormones or antibiotics and where animals face a minimum of stress, according to the Natural Marketing Institute.
That's good news for the fastest-growing segment of the organics industry. Organic foods regularly enjoys growth rates around 20 percent, but last year the meat and dairy category outpaced that tenfold. But that might also be good news for producers with a different certification label. Two years ago, activists within the American Humane Association created the Free Farmed Certificate Program. Its goal was to provide independent verification that businesses bearing its label provided humane conditions "down on the farm."
Proof of food purity is increasingly important, says Sylvia Tawse, whose public relations firm the Fresh Ideas Group represents Applegate Farms, a Free Farmed-certified operation. "Any [meat product] that provides customers assurances from their food fears will hit."
But the standards for organic and Free Farmed are not equal. And some feel that the presence of multiple label claims on meat and dairy products will create confusion for consumers and retailers, as well as questions of long-term economic sustainability.
Adele Douglass serves as executive director for Farm Animal Services, the nonprofit arm of AHA that administers the Free Farmed program. She and others fought for the program because they felt there was an immediate need to improve the lives of farm animals in this country, and they knew that the marketplaceâproviding companies an added value for taking care of their animalsâwas the most efficient means of accomplishing the goal.
Free Farmed standards vary by operation, but in general, the animals must have pasture access, weather permitting, and loafing areas that aren't concrete. They can't be tethered, and they have to be able to exercise; though like organic standards, specific space requirements are determined on-site by inspectors.
The program carries some requirements regarding feed, water and medicine. But food and water must only be plentifulâno mention is made of quality standards other than prohibition of growth hormones and meat-and-bone meal. And while the standards do not permit preventive antibiotic use, traditional veterinary practices are employed. The standard requires only that sick animals be provided treatment.
The certification process begins with written reports such as "Farm Manuals" and "Veterinary Health Records" and culminates with an on-site inspection. In general, says Dan Benedetti, president of Clover Stornetta Farms, which carries the Free Farmed logo on all its products, including its organic line, the standards dictate a lifestyle for farm animals, whereas organic standards are much more intense.
"Organic, by definition, goes back to the soil," says Benedetti, whose Petaluma, Calif.-based company contracts with 17 local dairies. "Organic goes back to how feed is grown, not just how animals are treated."
Participation in the Free Farmed program is actually one part of a broader program that Clover designed for itself years ago to create added value for its brand. Independent assessors verify Clover-contracted farms for several criteria, including programs to promote sustainable agriculture. Guaranteeing humane conditions for its dairy herd satisfied a condition under the company's North Coast Excellence Program and satisfied Free Farmed certification criteria as well.
Benedetti said Clover farms are small-scale, and the operators didn't have much to change to meet the standards. On the contrary, the company only has one supplier that has obtained organic certification, though three more are in the process. "The program to get certified [organic] takes much longer and is more expensive," Benedetti says, "because now you're dealing with diet."
Standards for organic livestock production are also designed to limit stress and promote good health for farmed animals. But they also deal with every other aspect of production, from certified-organic feed to housing and health care.
"You can safely say that organic standards are more strict regarding several aspects of production," says Pam Saunders, meat operations coordinator for La Farge, Wis.-based Organic Valley.
Organic certification for this segment also presents logistical challenges, because the industry is so new. The infrastructure to support different aspects of production is still developing. From organic feed supply to veterinarians who understand natural medicines and preventive care, from sources of livestock for ranchers to consumer understanding, this segment is just breaking through.
"We're still in the early stages of the introduction of this product category to the market," says Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association.
That's in part because before 1999, the USDA and the Food Safety and Inspection Service did not allow anything on a meat label that was not clearly defined. "In the '90s," Saunders says, "when the whole organic movement was getting its legs underneath it, consumers didn't have meat choices that were organic."
"All other organic food products have had the organic label for a longtime, so eco-labels [like Food Alliance based in Portland, Ore.] face a battle to create consumer demand," DiMatteo says. "But that's not true with meat. All these claimsâorganic, grass fed, free farmed or naturalâhave similar awareness with consumers."
For the Free Farmed program, just like organic, or any other brand identity, if people don't know what it means, it's not going to make a difference. Practically speaking, it all comes down to promotion and consumer awareness.
But Douglass believes that both the Free Farmed and organic programs can survive and prosper. And she doesn't think shoppers will compare labels. "We're not competing with organic," Douglass says. "We focus on different things, even though there's probably some overlap. Organic is an environmental standard, but Free Farmed is primarily a welfare standard."
Humane treatment of animals is an overarching value in this country, Tawse says. America is an animal-loving society, and for those producers who can't or aren't willing to go organic, there's another added-value program that speaks to consumers and improves conditions for more herds heretofore subjected to conventional care. The Free Farmed program gives producers a lower bar to aim for.
But Saunders believes the presence of alternative added-value claims for meat and dairy products will only cause consumer and retailer confusion. With the Free Farmed program out there, not to mention label claims such as grass-fed and natural, "We've got an uphill climb to differentiate ourselves now."
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 2/p. 22, 24