Foster Farms, one of the nation's top chicken broiler producers, has become the first major poultry company in the West to certify that its birds 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.
Foster Farms officials say the move to certification was done in response to growing consumer concerns about the treatment of animals.
"Consumers today are not ignorant," said Ira Brill, Foster Farms 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."
Foster Farms announced the news of its certification Monday during the dedication of the Foster Farms Poultry Education and Research Facility at Fresno State.
The 16,320-square-foot poultry building has also earned certification from the American Humane Association and serves as a hands-on educational facility for Fresno State students.
Charles Boyer, dean of the Jordan College of Agricultural Sciences and Technology at Fresno State, said he was proud that the facility has made animal welfare one of its priorities.
"We will be on the cutting edge," Boyer said.
California Department of Food and Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross thanked Foster Farms for responding to the shifting consumer mood over animal welfare. She said a recent survey found that 50 percent of consumers said they are more concerned now 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."
Other California producers earning American Humane Association certification include Clover Stornetta Farms in Petaluma, and egg-producer JS West Milling in Modesto.
The American Humane Association is the nation's oldest humane organization, protecting children, pets and farm animals from cruelty, abuse and neglect. It is different from Humane Society of the United States, which sponsored Proposition 2, the 2008 California ballot initiative that was intended to free chickens from the cramped, bare-wire cages used by most producers.
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, American Humane Association CEO Robin Ganzert said.
"We have a long way to go," she said.
As part of the certification process, companies must agree to be audited by an outside company. The audit consists of more than 200 criteria covering comfortable living conditions, diet and animal behavior.
Brill, the Foster Farms spokesman, said that among the changes it made to some of its 140 chicken ranches was improved lighting and increased training for employees.
"Animal welfare has always been a priority for us," Brill said. "And this complements what we have already been doing."