CONSCIENTIOUS COOKING: The grilled hanger steak on the lunch menu at Equinox (818 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202-331-8118) is dressed up with an arugula salad, pickled red onions and Parmesan-flavored bechamel, but that's not all that distinguishes the meat from that of the competition's. Equinox's beef, from a producer in the Midwest, is also designated on the menu as "certified humane."

In other words, the food comes from animals that are raised on a healthful diet free of hormones and antibiotics, with sufficient shelter and space to exercise, as well as "the ability to engage in natural behaviors," according to the guidelines established by Humane Farm Animal Care (703-435-3883), a nonprofit organization based in Herndon. Chickens get room to flap their wings and dust-bathe, for example, and pigs aren't confined to crates that don't allow them to stand up.

Ellen Gray, the general manager at Equinox, considers such branding "the next phase in the evolution of labeling." Since September, her downtown Washington restaurant has been serving beef, chicken and pork products that carry a seal of approval from Humane Farm Animal Care, which provides viable standards for farm animal food production. "Factory food needs some opposition," Gray says.

To that end, she and her husband, chef Todd Gray, recently brought together a handful of area chefs and animal care experts to discuss the issue and conduct a taste test. The beef labeled "certified humane, raised & handled" says Todd Gray, proved richer in flavor than the other samples. Currently, products tagged that way cost about 35 to 40 percent more than even their best counterparts, concedes the chef, and "there's not a lot of this product out there."

That could change if consumers bother to ask for it, says Adele Douglass, executive director of Humane Farm Animal Care. Not quite two years old, her organization already has approved use of the certified humane symbol (see inset) for about 20 companies, covering hundreds of farms, in the United States. She sees the group's mission as an all-around win: By buying products that carry the label, consumers "help improve the lives of farm animals," she says. "Plus, [the dishes] taste good."

The Humane Farm Animal Care label