The rectangular labels reading, "Certified Humane Raised & Handled," should start appearing in about a month on meat, poultry, dairy and egg products, Adele Douglass, executive director of Humane Farm Animal Care, said Thursday.
The program, backed by 10 animal welfare groups, certifies producers and processors who meet certain standards for animal treatment. Participants are charged modest royalty fees - 50 cents a pig, for example - and pay for annual inspections at $400 a day.
Humane Farm Animal Care will pay the U.S. Agriculture Department to check some farms' documents to verify that the group is meeting its own certification standards.
"This is not necessarily an approval of these marketing claims or handling techniques," said Randall Jones, an associate deputy administrator in the agency's Agricultural Marketing Service.
The program reflects a growing movement in the United States and abroad seeking better treatment of farm animals. On May 1, KFC announced new standards to ensure humane treatment of its chickens. A Gallup poll released Wednesday found most Americans support passing strict laws for farm animal treatment.
"The consolidation of the agriculture business and the creation of industry farms means too many farm animals across the country are treated inhumanely," Douglass said.
While the certification coalition aims to encourage humane practices, other animal-rights groups have drawn attention for tactics including sneaking onto egg farms to document poor conditions and staging protests dressed as crippled turkeys. Last November, Florida voters became the first in the nation to ban the confinement of pregnant pigs.
The Humane Farm Animal Care certification standards prohibit keeping pregnant pigs in metal "gestation crates," confining egg-laying hens in cages and tying dairy cows in stalls. They prohibit the use of growth hormones and selling the meat of animals who are too sick to walk.
A similar labeling program sponsored by the Denver-based American Humane Association in 2000 failed after receiving little funding. Douglass said the new program's broader base should ensure its success.
Douglass said consumers who buy foods bearing the blue, green and white labels will "send a powerful message to the agriculture industry that the humane care and treatment of American farm animals should be a priority."
National Pork Producers Council spokeswoman Kara Flynn said the labeling program is part of "an anti-meat agenda" with no scientific basis.
"It's saying if you don't adhere to this, you're going to be seen as someone who's not rearing or treating animals humanely, and that's false," she said.
The National Cattlemen's Beef Association, based in Denver, disagreed with the program's ban on feeds containing antibiotics, but said many of the standards are similar to guidelines it is developing.
"I see this program to be very compatible and very consistent with our desire to see that cattle are cared for in a humane manner," said Gary Weber, the association's executive director of regulatory affairs.
Douglass said five producers have been certified, and her group, based in Herndon, Va., is inspecting slaughterhouses for compliance with the American Meat Institute Standards, a higher standard for slaughtering farm animals than the Federal Humane Slaughter Act.
One certified producer, Hedgeapple Farm of Buckeystown, raises black Angus beef cattle on 250 acres about 40 miles north of Washington. The free-ranging animals eat as much fresh grass, rather than grain or hay, as the seasons allow. They are protected from disease by vaccinations, not feed additives that could accumulate in their meat.
"It just makes good sense to treat your production animals right," said John Jorgensen, president of the family foundation that owns the farm.
He said the techniques cost no more than grain-feeding the animals in crowded feedlots, and he charges about 25 percent more for the beef, which is available only at the farm.
"You can market your product at a premium because people are willing to pay for that type of certification," Jorgensen said.
The Humane Society of the United States and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals are among the program's supporters.
The Gallup poll released Wednesday was based on telephone interviews May 5-7 with 1,005 adults nationwide. It found 62 percent in favor and 35 percent opposed to passing strict laws concerning the treatment of farm animals. The poll had margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
By David Dishneau