LIVINGSTON -- Foster Farms has become the first major poultry company in the West to certify that its chickens are raised humanely.
The Livingston-based company's chicken products now carry the American Humane Certified label, meaning Foster Farms has met strict animal welfare standards set by the American Humane Association.
The label requires Foster Farms to undergo inspections to ensure that its chickens have enough feed and water, clean air and room to move around.
"Every single employee who handles a live bird is now trained to the animal welfare standards," company veterinarian Bob O'Connor said Monday.
He said the label builds on a two-year effort that includes disciplining employees who violate the standards, up to dismissal, and doing the same with people who fail to report abusive co-workers.
Foster Farms chickens are raised in large barns on about 140 ranches in California and the Pacific Northwest. The main processing plant is in Livingston.
The ranches are not free-range operations, nor do they have the cages used on most egg farms. They follow industry standards for population density, ventilation and other details.
The company announced the news Monday during the dedication of the Foster Farms Poultry Education and Research Facility at California State University, Fresno.
"Consumers today are not ignorant," said Ira Brill, director of corporate communications. "They are asking an increasing number of questions about their food. And they are looking to Fresno State, Foster Farms and the American Humane Association to provide the answers."
The group is separate from the Humane Society of the United States, which has been critical of poultry and other livestock producers for what it says are crowded farms.
The 16,320-square-foot poultry building also has earned certification from the American Humane Association and serves as a hands-on educational facility for Fresno State students.
California Department of Food and Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross thanked Foster Farms for responding to the shifting consumer mood on animal welfare. She said a survey found that 50 percent of consumers said they are more concerned about animal welfare and how animals are raised for food than they were five years ago.
"This is very much about the future of California agriculture," Ross said. "And this represents a tremendous opportunity for us."
J.S. West also certified
Other California operations earning American Humane Association certification include egg producer J.S. West & Cos. in Modesto and the Clover Stornetta Farms dairy in Petaluma.
The American Humane Association's certification program covers more than 400 million animals being raised for food. While that may seem like a large number, it represents only about 5 percent of the total production, Chief Executive Officer Robin Ganzert said.
"We have a long way to go," she said.
Modesto Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2385.