Safeway Becomes the First Chain to Require Certified Humane Eggs

In a major victory for animal rights advocates, the retailer will mandate strict standards for all cage-free and organic egg producers.

Humane eggs can now be bought at the supermarket. (Photo: Creative Crop/Getty Images)

Dec 18, 2012
Megan Bedard is a sucker for sustainable agriculture and a good farmers market, she likes writing about food almost as much as eating it.

This week, the nonprofit Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC) announced that Safeway's Lucerne Cage-Free, O-Organic, and Open Nature eggs have all earned its Certified Humane designation. Adopting these standards makes the supermarket chain the first major retailer in the United States to require all of its cage-free and organic eggs to truly be produced humanely.

Back in 2008, Michael Talbott, a member of the Safeway Supplier Quality Management team, got in touch with HFAC to discuss what changes would be required to certify Safeway’s cage-free and organic eggs. Other organizations offer similar certifications, but HFAC’s is one of the most rigid in the country; its seal of approval assures consumers that certain standards have been met during production, including “that animals have ample space, shelter and gentle handling to limit stress” according to the nonprofit's website.

The certification (which covers a range of animal products in addition to eggs) also prohibits growth hormones and antibiotics, and requires that animals are free to move and are not confined to cages, crates, or tie stalls. Says HFAC, “This means that chickens are able to flap their wings and dust bathe.” Finally, caretakers of animals must be “thoroughly trained, skilled and competent in animal husbandry and welfare, and have good working knowledge of their system and the livestock in their care.” Farmers and ranchers must comply with food-safety and environmental regulations too.

It’s no small process to meet the requirements, especially for a company like Safeway, which works with hundreds of suppliers. In fact, it took four years. Standing contracts had to be honored, and some suppliers held out, refusing to meet the qualifications necessary to remain in business with Safeway. “But Safeway held strong,” HFAC's CEO Adele Douglass tells TakePart, sending a powerful message to the rest of the industry.

Douglass says that she has heard time and again from farmers that if consumers really wanted changes regarding animal welfare, they would supply it. She believed that consumers did, in fact, want change; she herself wanted it, and in the beginning, she didn’t know how to move forward. “I thought, ‘What am I supposed to do? How am I supposed to have an impact on this? I felt really impotent on this. And this program [HFAC] to me is a way to empower consumers. This is how they help make a change because they have a voting power in the marketplace.”

“When you have a company that says, ‘We’re not going to buy eggs from you unless you make the changes to how you’re raising those animals and become certified humane,’ that is the biggest carrot that farmers can have,” she says.

In addition to shepherding suppliers through the certification process—which includes a lengthy application, onsite inspections, interviews with staff, a review of records, and observation and evaluation of operating procedures—HFAC also works to encourage communication between consumers and big companies like Safeway. Consumers can visit the organization’s site to download “product request forms,” which are easy-to-print .pdfs intended to help individuals communicate to retailers their desire to see more Certified Humane products. If stores do offer such items, people can express their support by bringing an HFAC comment card to the management.

Making sure stores hears from consumers—especially after they make the transition to stocking Certified Humane products—is key to ensuring the retailers continue to evolve their practices, Douglass says. “The more they hear that, the more important this becomes and the more changes that are made. By buying Safeway’s eggs and thanking Safeway, they’re letting Safeway and their farmers know that they want this market, and that this is a message to all the others.”

Douglass bristles at the suggestion that it’s not possible to truly be “humane” on a scale as large as Safeway’s. Though she can't speak for all certification processes, she explains that companies who comply with HFAC’s strict standards couldn't meet all of the requirements while continuing to practice inhumane methods. An annual review of each Certified Humane supplier also ensures that farmers continue to meet the requirements. So the program is self-correcting in many ways. For example, “You can’t have a mega-farm,” she says, “because there’s no space; they will never have the space to meet our space requirements.”

“You’re not having a farm that’s scaling up to produce millions of eggs,” she says of Safeway’s supply chain. “You’re talking about farms all over the U.S. There’s farms in California; there’s farms in the Midwest; there’s farms in Texas, in the Northeast. There’s farms everywhere. You can’t have one central place that supplies eggs to Safeway.”  

Vitriolic hate mail arrives at Douglass’ office regularly, especially after an announcement like the recent Safeway victory, accusing her of being akin to Hitler because she doesn’t condemn slaughter altogether. “It just gets tiring,” she says. “I did this to provide relief to the farm animals in food production. I don’t think animals should suffer so you can make a political statement. Go ahead and convert the world into veganism. In the meantime, ten billion farm animals are being killed."

HFAC’s record speaks to its impact. In 2003, the year the organization started, 143,000 farm animals were raised under Certified Humane standards, she says. In 2012, 76.8 million farm animals were raised according to the program's requirements.

“That’s what makes me sleep well at night,” Douglass says. “I think people care about how farm animals are raised and how they’re slaughtered. You don’t have to be a vegan or a vegetarian to care. Because no matter how short a time period an animal is on this Earth, nobody wants it to suffer.”

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