Where Was Your Chicken Before It Hatched?

Grocery shopping is not what it used to be. Besides making sure the eggs aren't cracked, there's the new sport of label checking.

Are the eggs brown or white? Are they organic? Hormone-free? Free-range? Cruelty-free? And how are these things even justified? Certified? Legitimate?

As people become more concerned about where their food comes from and what it goes through before it rests on their plate, a new revolution brews and it's in an unlikely place -- the farm.

The "Certified Humane" label, a certification created in May 2003 through Herndon, Va.-based Humane Farm Animal Care, is becoming a more-popular and sought-after sticker for producers and stores, alike.

The Humane Farm Animal Care certification standards prohibit holding 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.

More than 50 companies have been granted the rights to use the label, according to Holly Bridges, director of outreach for Humane Farm Animal Care.

"For an organization that came into being three years ago, we have had a huge growth," Bridges said. "People are expanding their value systems and they want to support things that show humanity."

Even the advocacy group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is excited about the heightened interest in the label.

"It's the best current wide-scale program to combat abuse on modern factory farms," said Bruce Friedrich, vice president of PETA's international grass-roots campaign. "The farms certified have to get rid of a lot of the really heinous things found on a farm. To be certified, a farm cannot cram chickens into bins where they can't move. They can't starve chickens, shock their bodies or pumping animals so full of drugs that they can't even walk. These are the realities for most factory farms. So the goals of this label are admirable and the outcome is significant."

Grocery stores are also seeing the commercial potential of carrying the label in their stores.

A 23-store chain based in Larchmont, N.Y., D'Agostino Supermarkets, is asking all its suppliers to become certified humane. The supermarket not only is trying to figure out how to compete in the tough New York grocery market with big competitors like Whole Foods and Trader Joe's winning over shoppers in the region, but owner Nick D'Agostino III says his customers are looking for this.

"People are more concerned about where their food comes from," he said. "People are very, very concerned. There is no reason why animals shouldn't be treated in a reasonable manner."

In fact, D'Agostino only sells veal that is humane certified.

"Many people won't buy veal because of the controversy," D'Agostino said. "So that is changing."

The certified humane label, which reads "Certified Humane Raised & Handled," may ease some consumers' minds. To become certified, a food item must meet certain standards, including no use of growth hormones and raising animals on a regular diet of "quality feed free of antibiotics."

Producers also must comply with local, state and federal environmental standards. Processors must comply with the American Meat Institute Standards, a higher standard for slaughtering farm animals than the Federal Humane Slaughter Act.

While perusing the egg aisle at Whole Foods in New York City, Jennifer Bladsoe said she generally bought the most expensive eggs on the shelf.

"Not only do I like the idea of buying cruelty-free," she said. "I also like that they taste better than other eggs. There's no comparison. And I like the idea that I am buying something that was not abused before it got to me."

To accommodate universities and area businesses that have decided to serve only organic and cage-free eggs, Watertown, Mass.-based Radlo Foods recently revamped its henhouses and farming systems to earn the certified humane label.

That move came at a cost to egg suppliers, though.

"The rule basically is that you need four to six times the space to have the cage-free hens," said David Radlo of Radlo Foods.

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.

While some animal rights activists disagree on whether this is truly cruelty-free treatment, many agree that it's a step in the right direction.

"The quality of life of a cage-free hen is so much better than the quality of life of a battery-cage hen that this campaign is meant to move the industry in that direction," said Paul Shapiro of the Humane Society.

Radlo said demand really dictated the change in his henhouses.

"We sit back and we see the demand at the retail level and at the food service level," Radlo said. "And people want this. We just are giving people what they want. People are even willing to pay more."

Humane Farm Animal Care's Bridges is confident that consumer demand for the certified humane label will grow.

"Given the option, to choose a product that is cruelty-free or not, people will choose cruelty-free."