Our valley struggles in so many regards, but when it comes to food production and agricultural innovation, we soar.
The latest example is Foster Farms, the Modesto-born, Livingston-based company which has become the first major producer of broiler chickens in the country to be certified as growing their birds under humane conditions.
Packages of fresh Foster Farms chicken now carry the seal of the American Humane Association, the country's oldest humane society. To earn that designation the company has spent the last 18 months in discussions with the association and for the last six months or so been audited by humane society inspectors on the living conditions and diet of its millions of chickens. To keep the certification, Foster Farms will be subject to audits at any time.
This step does two things: First, it responds to a consumer demand for meat animals that are grown in a humane way. Second, it helps stave off either government regulations or an initiative effort to impose more rules on how chickens are raised.
The other animal rights organization, the Humane Society of the United States, successfully advocated for Proposition 2, the 2008 voter-approved initiative which imposed strict rules about cage sizes and design for egg-laying chickens.
Another local company, J.S. West, took the lead in responding to Proposition 2 by building "enriched colony" cages. The American Humane Association has endorsed that type of housing.
HSUS has not gone after the broiler chicken industry -- which does not and never has housed birds in cages -- but that was always a possibility. According to its website, HSUS currently is focusing on getting rid of gestation crates used in the pork industry. As a result of pressure from the organization and consumers, a number of major restaurant and supermarket chains have announced they will no longer buy from swine producers that use the crates.
We've always maintained that most farmers do a good job of caring for their animals because it is in their best interest to do so. Cows that are well cared for give more milk; healthy and well fed chickens lay more eggs, and so on.
But there are some bad actors and animal rights groups have been successful in showing their poor practices via video and other campaigns. Unfortunately, they tend to characterize those situations as the norm rather than aberrations.
Foster Farms says it implemented a comprehensive animal welfare program in 2008, and the certification by the American Humane Association was the simply the next step.
The company commissioned a survey on consumer attitudes about humane-certified meat and poultry products. In that survey of 2,000 West Coast consumers, 49 percent said they are more concerned now than they were five years ago with animal welfare and how animals are raised for food.
A Foster Farms spokesman said the improvements made to achieve the humane certification won't increase the price of Foster Farms products. The company has never aimed to be the cheapest, always marketing itself on quality.
Since its founding in 1939 by Verda and Max Foster -- he was an editor at this newspaper -- Foster Farms has grown to become the eighth largest broiler producer in the country. It operates more than 100 ranches in the Central Valley, and in 2001 it acquired Zacky Farms, based in Southern California. Foster Farms also operates in the Pacific Northwest. The certification assures that the company is maintaining humane treatment at every ranch.
Whether motivated by consumer demand or by the risk of government intervention -- or, more likely, a combination of both -- Foster Farms has made a savvy move that will only bolster our region's reputation as a food producer.