By REBEKAH DENN
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER REPORTER
KENT -- Anyone who buys vacuum-sealed packs of ham, bacon and chops from Shelley and Mike Pasco-Verdi is welcome to come down and see how the meat was treated when it was part of a living pig.
On Thursday morning at Whistling Train Farm, they would have seen nine piglets grunting with satisfaction as they clustered close to mother Violet in a spacious pen, nursing on and off as they pleased. Then the sow nudged the Chihuahua-size babies with her nose for their first trip outdoors to wallow in the dirt and explore.
The ample shelter and pastoral setting, the clean straw and vegetarian feed, the undocked tails and mother's milk -- even the affectionate shoulder rubs that inspire Violet to lean her whole body against Shelley's side -- are summed up in two words on the farm's Web site: "Happy Pigs."
And that's part of why Whistling Train's pork is a hot seller, entirely aside from the flavor.
The search for such "humanely raised" food is opening up new ground in what was previously a no-man's land between carnivores and vegetarians. An increasing number of consumers are acting as "ethical omnivores," saying that they'll only eat meat and dairy products that have been raised in a cruelty-free way.
"I was very close to becoming vegetarian, only because of the things I have been reading ... about factory-farmed animals and how horrendous it really is," said Marcia Friedman of West Seattle. Instead, she began ordering Whistling Train's pork last year.
"You know what, we are made with canine teeth and we were made to eat meat and I feel if I'm going to, it may as well be meat and animals that are well-treated and happy until the last minute and killed in a humane way."
Such choices tend to be pricier for consumers. One study suggested that humane improvements instituted by the United Egg Producers cooperative would raise the price of eggs by 8 to 10 cents per dozen -- and animal rights advocates criticize even those improvements as minimal. Prices for free-range chickens run more than 50 percent higher than standard brands this week at QFC.
Regardless, the trend is the fastest-growing segment in grocery shopping, said Trudy Bialic, editor and marketing manager at Puget Consumers Co-op, which has long had "cruelty-free standards" for its animal products.
"People want clean dairy and meat. They want wild-caught salmon. 'Fast Food Nation' (the muckraking best seller on the food industry) did a lot, I think, to wake people up to what's happening, and a lot of people are asking more questions about their food."
It's leapt beyond a niche market, with a majority of consumers in a May Gallup poll said they would support strict laws concerning farm animal treatment. National chain groceries now offer milk from "happy cows" and eggs from "naturally nested" birds. Some restaurants are jumping in, such as University of Washington-area favorite Agua Verde, which recently switched to organic and cruelty-free meats despite the whack it took to restaurant profits.
"I don't know if we're all still trying to change the world, but I think a lot of people are," co-owner Mick Heltsley said of the switch.
Industrial farms have been stung by high-profile campaigns from groups such as PETA and reports such as the recent book "Dominion," where a former speechwriter for President Bush detailed how the economics of factory farming -- and the separation of farming from the average consumer's life -- has led to a numbing cruelty where animals live out short and painful lives.
Even fast-food purveyors have made improvements: For instance, McDonald's now refuses to purchase eggs from suppliers who don't give hens at least 72 square inches of cage space.
"I think people are getting more aware that the factory methods of creating meat and dairy products and eggs and things is not consistent with how they view food ought to be produced," said Bruce Babcock, a professor of economics at Iowa State University.
There's still an enormous gap between industry improvements and true humanity, animal welfare advocates say. The United Egg Producers, for instance, required increasing cage space for birds from 53 to 67 square inches per bird over six years as one of the requirements for its "animal care certified" label.
"If you're trapped in an elevator with 20 people as opposed to 10 people your entire life -- yeah, it's going to be a little better with 10 people, but it's still going to be excruciating and horrible," said Jennifer Hillman, legislative coordinator for the Progressive Animal Welfare Society in Lynnwood.
However, "the problem is so huge that it's not fair to the animals, from our perspective, to say wait until they're not in cages at all. If we could at least give them a few extra inches, we'll take it," Hillman said.
And the United Egg Producers label is just one in a confusing sea of claims, with cartons advertising grazing animals and words like "natural" without specifics to back up the beatific claims.
"Natural is kind of a misnomer, really. All it means is minimally processed and no added ingredients. So to go out on a natural beef program, you're really not telling the whole story, you're just using (the marketing)," said Lee Pate, meat and seafood merchandiser for PCC.
Pate said there's no substitute for seeing firsthand how the animals are treated -- or shopping from a place that does so.
He loves taking his meat managers on ranch tours like a recent one to Oregon, visiting Umpqua Valley Lamb's pasture-fed animals. He praised the producers' work in controlling a weed without pesticides; their work controlling hillside erosion, and their passion for their work that showed in healthy lambs.
"You just walk away from that and go wow, these people really care about what they're doing ... I can just look at an animal (and see its living conditions)," he said. "You're also looking people in the face and seeing if they're telling you the truth, which is important."
In a move that might add more clarity, a coalition of animal care organizations recently backed a new national "Humane Farm Animal Care" program that will certify producers who follow standardized animal welfare guidelines (Full guidelines are online at www.certifiedhumane.com
Pigs must be free to turn around without difficulty at all times as part of the certification requirements, for instance, rather than the standard practice of confining pregnant animals to "sow crates" so small they can't comfortably lie down (In Florida last year, voters banned such crates). Laying hens must have enough room to turn around and stretch their wings without difficulty. Producers are not permitted to withdraw food from chickens to induce molting, and they must provide a shaded area for dairy cows when daytime temperatures are consistently above 85 degrees.
But humane-certified companies can continue with other practices that leave animal rights groups aghast, such as docking pigs' tails and trimming chicken beaks. The guidelines note that when more research is done and alternatives developed, such practices might be banned.
The standards, while a needed third-party oversight, are "probably not as strict as some people would expect," said Humane Farm Animal Care board member Jack Sparks.
"People, when they hear the animal welfare community is behind it ... think we demand the cows be tucked into the sheets with chocolate on the pillow. That's not the case, they're very common sense."
Still, a spokeswoman for the National Pork Producers Council told The Associated Press that the labeling program is part of "an anti-meat agenda" with no scientific basis. Other major industry groups are cooperating with the Food Marketing Institute and National Council of Chain Restaurants on their own set of animal welfare guidelines.
But neither will guarantee the small-farm approach of organizations like Whistling Train, where 200 chickens can freely roost inside a henhouse or wander outdoors to peck for bugs under the hazelnut trees in a two-acre field.
The business isn't a sentimental one -- the week-old piglets will be slaughtered in December, after all. And the laying hens have an eight- to 10-year lifespan, but Whistling Train sells them for stewing meat when their production drops off sharply at the age of 2 or 3.
Even so, it's hard for them to make a profit from livestock -- part of the reason why factory farms took off in the first place.
Whistling Train makes more of its money on its vegetables, Shelley Pasco-Verdi said, only breaking even on its eggs at $3.50 per dozen (they're debating adding more chickens to achieve some economy of scale). Pork sales only became profitable when the state began allowing farmers to sell meat at farmers markets. They can charge $4.50 to $8.50 per pound for the smaller quantities, a profitable jump from the $3.50 per pound they could get when selling a quarter- or half-pig at a time.
A sudden loss -- such as the boar who stopped inseminating the sows last year, or the hot weather that reduced the chickens' laying last month -- can completely disrupt the careful balance of costs and profits.
But Pasco-Verdi raises animals because she likes them and wants to, and because she's comfortable with the way she does it.
The chickens and pigs are allowed to range "because, well, they should," she said, gesturing at Violet's pen. "I mean -- I don't want to be stuck there."