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October 2006
Restoring the Small Farm Ethic

The Satya Interview with Diane Halverson

Diane Halverson and Pigs in Iowa. Photo courtesy of Diane Halverson

The Animal Welfare Institute was founded in 1951 to reduce the sum total of pain and fear inflicted on animals by people. One of the greatest areas of emphasis AWI concentrates on today is animal agriculture, as they campaign to stop the expansion of factory farms, promote small family farms, and develop “animal-friendly” husbandry practices. They will be releasing their own set of standards and label later this year. Diane Halverson is the Farm Animal Advisor for AWI and the author of their humane on-farm husbandry standards for pigs, which are implemented by a growing number of small family farmers, like those supplying Niman Ranch. Halverson is also working with Whole Foods Market in creating their Animal Compassionate standards.

Kymberlie Adams Matthews had a chance to talk to Diane Halverson about the emergence of humane standards and labels, what it means for the animals, and the importance of small operations.

Tell us about the work you’re doing on farm animal issues.

As an organization our goal is to abolish industrial methods of raising animals for food. Our campaign includes both working to stop the expansion of animal factories, especially in Eastern Europe where multi-nationals are trying to replace the independent family farm with agribusiness operations. Here in the U.S. we have worked with scientists and farmers to develop animal husbandry standards for the various species of animals used for food. We visit farms that want our certification and if they are approved, they can use the name Animal Welfare Institute in their marketing. We will be releasing our label later this year.

Can you discuss AWI’s humane husbandry standards and the “Five Freedoms” used to describe both the needs of domesticated animals and the duties of care owed them? 
The idea of the five freedoms was to simplify and formulize the essential needs of the animals. We make sure to specifically lay out each freedom so that they are not misinterpreted. For example, with poultry they need freedom from any physical impairment. You can give a typical broiler access to outdoors or a place to perch, but because of their skeletal deformities and the fact that they are bred to grow very rapidly, they are handicapped. They can’t enjoy the outdoors or use perches successfully for their entire life. So we require standard bred birds to avoid any of the animal welfare issues that come from enhanced breast meat or faster growth. Our birds are physically able to dust bathe, to perch, they can enjoy the outdoors the standards provide.

In particular, we have been working with pig farmers because they were the first species we developed standards for. We have about 500 pig farmers who meet our husbandry standards and the vast majority market through Niman Ranch. With pigs, we would like them to have outdoor access but do not require it. If they do not have access to outdoors, they must have deep bedding and a large opening that would allow natural light to come in. We also require that the sow is able to build a nest, that means they need enough space and proper materials, especially for when she gives birth. We prohibit tail docking and require the use of older breeds—the animals cannot be bred for leanness or fast growth because they will have very little insulation to stand the temperature variations.

Your standards don’t just look at animal care but at how the farm operates as well. Can you talk about the movement back to small, sustainable family farms?

We believe that it is in revitalizing this culture that the animals have the best chance of being protected as individuals. It also gives us a chance to sustain a humane ethic for generations to come. Part of our definition of family farms is the people own the animals and depend on the farm for a significant part of their livelihood. They also have to participate in the daily physical labor of managing the farm and the animals so that the farmer, the family, works physically close with the animals and that the individual animal will matter. We also want to avoid absentee ownership—a model for distancing the caretaker from the animal, making the animals more vulnerable to a system of cheap hired labor without husbandry skills or interest in the animals’ well-being. We also require that they are independent family farms. We are the only welfare standard that takes this vital step against humane markets falling entirely into the hands of agribusiness. Agribusiness is entirely too happy to keep animals in factories if that’s what makes money, while taking advantage of a special niche market as well. So we prohibit dual productions. Operators cannot have big factory systems alongside their humane system. We don’t allow people to have their cake and eat it too.

How much more expensive is it to follow these standards?
Most of the farmers already have land and can actually make a better return on raising pigs on that acreage than by planting cash crops. The price for typical row crops such as corn and beans is less than putting animals on that same land. Farmers have said this to me, and it makes sense. I grew up on a family farm and the price for cash crops these days is pitiful compared to the amount of work that goes into them. We are talking about a really traditional way of raising pigs. Our standards really formalize what farmers did for generations. These are not energy and capital intensive factories.

But without constant monitoring, how can we trust that these changes will stay in place? Who will be monitoring these farms?
Both AWI staff and Niman Ranch field agents do that. We sort of deputize them to do our inspections. The standards are quite strict in the first place, and our agents check everything out. The farmers also must sign affidavits to not only Niman Ranch and AWI but to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Even though the USDA is not going to be routinely inspecting these farms, there is a legal obligation, which I think is another indication of the farmer’s intentions to meet our standards. They really have to want to do this. There are checks at the slaughterhouse too, to see if tails are docked and periodic checks of meat for antibiotic residue.

We at AWI only prohibit the non-therapeutic or routine low-level use of antibiotics. We do not prohibit all antibiotic use because we want to encourage sick pigs to be treated as individuals. Niman Ranch requires treating sick or injured pigs as well, but cannot accept into their market any pig who has been treated with an antibiotic. Retailers believe consumers want pigs without any antibiotics at all. But it is really important to help protect the pig who steps on something or gets sick. It is the misuse of antibiotics that affects human resistance—the low-level use in the feed or water to control outbreaks of disease. Consumers need to appreciate that difference and not demand an end of all antibiotics.

If farmers are prevented from selling that pig to the niche market, that is unfortunate. They will have already put a fair amount of money and time and effort into that animal. They aren’t making huge profits anyway, so every pig matters. And it also means the animal realistically will be treated a little earlier and remain in the specialty market.

Whole Foods is the first major grocery chain to create humane treatment standards. What are your thoughts?
We are involved in the process of helping to develop the standards and are one of the animal welfare groups at the table. I think it is a very important move because it helps to raise the issue of how animals are suffering in industrial agriculture and will allow consumers to reject factory farmed products. Which is the whole reason AWI developed our standards—to give consumers the option to reject those products. For Whole Foods to be saying that ‘the animals matter’ is a wonderful effort.

Why are these companies suddenly so willing to take measures to reduce animal suffering?
Well, I think part of the reason is that Niman Ranch embraced our standards in 1997 and has had great success. I think the example of farmers embracing higher welfare standards is reaching individual consumers. Plus the impact of welfare on meat quality and taste is significant. I think our success has been an inspiration and provided a lesson to retailers marketing Niman Ranch products. Consumers are also being educated by animal protection organizations and are beginning to ask questions about where their food is coming from. It is an actual example of farmers meeting consumer expectations; they reflect the value systems they claim to have.

But even those who want to regularly buy “humane” or “organic” meat probably become confused or overwhelmed by the many labels.
True. There are many claims of higher standards and animal welfare, but these programs are not equal. If possible, consumers should look up the standards on the Internet. Many allow things that consumers will not support. There is one humane label out there that, in the case of pork, their biggest supplier is part of a Canadian agribusiness firm that simultaeously operates pig factories with thousands of sows in gestation crates and sells breeding females to pig factories around the world. But that’s not advertised on their website. I think the whole issue of dual production is an important one. With animals we are talking about sentient creatures. We don’t think it is right to reward a company that continues to operate cruel systems, particularly if they do it at the expense of small farms who have a humane ethic throughout their farm. The larger operations can typically underbid these farms and put tremendous economic pressure on small farms that don’t have the advantage of size.

Even if animals are raised in the “best conditions” the end result is the same—mass slaughter, fear and pain. This fact cannot be overlooked or ignored. How can death be humane?
When we describe what we try to do with slaughter we should stay away from the word humane, because it means, well I think the act of killing an animal for many people is the opposite of humane. But what we strive for is to see the animals’ death is swift and merciful. That the animal is as comfortable as can be in transport, unloading and in the staging area at the slaughterhouse. That the movement toward the stun happens with as little fear as possible. That the animal is rendered unconscious with a single stun. I think what we try for in this program is to allow animals to enjoy their daily lives and make sure the last day of their life is with as little pain and fear as possible.

Animals exposed to strange things are going to feel fear. When confined in a factory system where all they see, all their lives, is four concrete walls, a concrete floor, the animals in their immediate vicinity and one person who feeds them, change will be very scary. Niman Ranch keeps their pigs outdoors where there are lots of things happening—tractors coming and going, people working, cars going by on the road. They know things. They will even be put in a hydraulic trailer to be moved from the pasture to the barns in the winter. And they will have had these things in a safe, familiar and friendly setting. So they are better prepared for change when they are put in a transport vehicle and taken to slaughter and unloaded again. Those things aren’t going to automatically inspire fear.

It’s just that as long as people are using animals for food in the huge volume they are, consumers just have to be given a choice in the marketplace. And that choice has to be identified for them. And if an animal welfare group doesn’t do it, then who is going to? And who is going to do it in a way that truly protects the best interests of the animal?

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